Part 15: Company and Compost

O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper'd corpses within you?
Is not every continent work'd over and over with sour dead?

-Walt Whitman

It was very hard to get going the next morning but I did it because Mateo needed breakfast and then a packed lunch so that he could go on patrol and hopefully bring back some additional salvage. After he left I noticed that I wasn't the only one moving a little slow. It was the fifth day of their visit but it felt like they'd been here longer. They looked at me expectantly and I ran over in my head what I wanted to cover before speaking.

"You've seen our entire set up from garden and field to final product. You've seen how we use the animals as part of the system … compost, fertilizer, and the Muscovy and Mad Geese bug patrol. You've seen our water purification set up and how we run water through all of the sand filters before adding it to our cistern; how our drinking and cooking water is from the well on the days that we have enough battery power to run it and when not, we use water that we've further treated from the cistern and stored in barrels inside. You've seen our long-range food plans and how we preserve what comes out of the gardens, hedges, and orchards. Now I want to branch out a bit. I've talked with Lopez but I'll admit to being really surprised that Base has really missed a prime resource to exploit."

Dog, thinking he was beating me to the punch said, "Humanure. Waste processing is in a different department but from what I understand they decided to pass on the project for now because too many still get sick and contamination is a real potential problem."

"We decided the same thing but only because of the elevated water levels we've had around here for the last several months," I told him. "Though humanure is a potential resource, what I was actually referring to are wild food sources. You've seen how we harvest wild meat with the gator, snakes, and frogs' legs. There's also fresh water fish in the canals and the swamp grows some big snails for escargot if I want to go to the trouble and it keeps those little jobbers out of my garden."

Joseph interrupted my lecture with a very audible gulp and a gagging, "Snails?! Dude, not even I get that hungry."

I couldn't help but smile as the other three chuckled. "Never say never Joseph. It's nothing but an opportunity for someone to prove you wrong. Apple snails are good protein sources." I showed him the large empty shells of the snails that we had eaten the week before they had arrived. Juliet mentioned that she'd eaten snails before when they had dinner with a friend of her parents' that had married a French woman. Joseph turned a little green around his edges.

After the laughter died back I continued. "Let me try another tact. What is this?" I asked pointing to a glass gallon jug I had sat on one of the garden benches.

Liz and Dog kept silent giving the kids a chance. Juliet finally answered, "I know it looks like water with some weeds in it but I bet that is the tea Mom … I mean the Major … was talking about."

"Correct," I told her with a smile. "This is an herbal version of sun tea. It is one of my favorite blends and contains spearmint, peppermint, and lemon balm … all out of my garden. In a little while after it has a chance to finish steeping we can sit and relax with a glass."

"Do we … I mean you strain the green stuff out of there right?" Joseph asked.

"That's right. It doesn't have the caffeine that traditional tea leaves have but it is still a pick me up and some herbs have certain properties that help in various situations. Some herbs have a calming effect. Some herbs encourage physical vitality. Some herbs help to stimulate the appetite or settle the stomach. Then some herbs you need to watch out for because they have a surprisingly strong laxative effect."

The kids snickered as I expected they would, but I noticed that Dog was trying to hold back his own laughter while Liz rolled her eyes and elbowed him. She looked at me conspiratorially and said, "They never grow up." I grinned noncommittally since Mateo could be a bit of a stick about some things, but it was the way he was raised so I just accepted it since it didn't hurt anything.

"Several of my potted herbs have gone wild. I've since fenced them off but only so they aren't constantly trampled accidentally, some have spread out beyond the boundaries I tried to set for them." In particular I pointed out several varieties of mints as well as the borage plant that was spreading way outside of where its pot had fallen over and broken during the time the children and I were shut up in the bunker. "I also harvest edible flowers and wild greens from all over this area, say within a mile from the house but that is about as far as my travels take me these days and then only with Mateo when he needs help with some leverage on some larger pieces of wood. The problem is that it's too much work to subsist on foraging alone – you usually spend more calories than you take in – but as a supplemental food source it can't be beat. Foraged foods also tend to be more tightly packed with high concentrations of vitamins and minerals; you get a lot of bang for your buck."

"How so?" asked Liz. "Are you saying we lose something when we domesticate a plant species?"

"Not exactly though I did hear something to that affect in a lecture I attended a few years ago. It's easier to use a specific example to explain what I mean. Take a head of lettuce, say an iceberg type. A salad made of it is what most people are used to taste-wise and texture, but it is bland and mostly water. It fills you up and provides roughage, but it can get boring rather quickly … one of the reasons people use way too much dressing. But if you add dandelions, dollar weed, purslane, and violets you aren't just adding nutrition, you are extending your domestic food source, adding color, texture and flavor, and making the meal more interesting for your taste buds and your brain. With a greater variety of forage greens you can have the same menu component several days running – a side salad – while still having something quite different each time it is served."

Dog grinned and the kids sighed as they saw me pick up a stack of buckets and baskets. "And what are we getting up to today?"

I gave him an overly bright smile and said sweetly, "I'm so glad you asked." Liz laughed outright. Dog rolled his eyes. Juliet snickered. And Joseph groaned good naturedly and in sotto voice added, "Juliet you sure Leah and your mom aren't related or something? They sure know how to put a guy to work."

I passed everyone a container and led them out of our yard. I showed them how to find the easiest to identify greens like dandelion, violet, Spanish Bayonet blooms, purslane and dollar weed, wild garlic, and cat tails. We also picked any ripe wild blackberries that we came across. Dog added his own knowledge of edible fungus and showed me how to gather spores so that I could start my own mushroom beds. By the time a couple of hours had passed we were all hungry and eager to head back. Neeno, who I had been carrying in a sling on my back, was especially in need of his lunch and a nap.

To demonstrate further that wild forage could be tasty and good for you I set up the juicer that Mateo had brought home the day before. Into it I tossed a good handful of mixed wild greens, two dried apples that had been rehydrating since breakfast, and five stalks of celery. I poured the resulting juice into condiment cups so that everyone could have a taste. Dog and Liz liked the drink but the kids found the greens a little strong. "This can always be thinned out a bit with water or juice or you can pull back on the amount of greens you add until you get used to it."

Liz asked, "What do you do with the left over pulp?"

"The stuff from the juicer?" At her nod I said, "Depends. I've used it to stretch my flour for bread or tortillas. Sometimes I dump it into the pigs' slop bucket; but if it has any alliums in it – onions or garlic or chives – I put it into the compost pile, pigs shouldn't have alliums."

Dog shook his head, "Now wait, growing up we had pigs and they got onions and garlic in the leftovers all the time."

"Leftovers means you cooked them right?"

"Well … yeah. We'd give them table scraps."

I nodded, "We don't have too many table scraps around here and those we do I usually reuse in another recipe. So like Liz asked, I reuse stuff as much as I can so that there is less waste. But I never give the pigs uncooked onions, garlic, or any other allium … maybe I'm wrong but in 4H that is what our leader always told us. I just prefer to be safe than sorry; I found other ways to make sure they get all the nutrition they need. Frankly, as soon as it gets cold again we plan on culling some of the pigs as there are getting to be too many of them for us to feed and care for … we've already had to enlarge their pen twice to keep 'em from fighting."

Joseph asked incredulously, "Pigs fight?!"

Juliet said, "Joey pigs will bite your fingers off if they are in the mood or just hungry. When I was working on the animal farm I saw a guy get mangled up pretty bad by a boy pig … and there were some parts missing when they got him out and tried to sew him up."

Dog said, "A male pig is a boar … and not our department so let's get back on track."

I sighed, "Actually Dog I have a favor to ask. Can you all … uh … entertain yourself the rest of the day? I really need to catch up on laundry and some housework."

I'd caught him off guard but in half a moment he was grinning, "Definitely not a problem. I was wondering when we'd have the time to work on the reports and gather some local samples and now is as good a time as any."

I was relieved. I enjoy teaching, I always have even when I was just a teen and got my volunteer hours from being a Homework Help at the library or as a VBS group leader at church. The problem lay in the fact that I still had my other time-consuming responsibilities that couldn't be put off. I needed that afternoon off probably as badly as they did.

I was boiling some cloth diapers and praying that it wouldn't take forever to potty train Neeno when Liz came up behind me and asked, "Mind some company? I warn you though, those diapers stink less than Dog's socks do."

The joke was funny but I found to my surprise she hadn't been exaggerating. "My word!"

"I know, it's awful," she admitted making a face as she hurriedly dumped the offending articles into a bucket of water we dipped from the barrel I had heating. "We're on the list for a new pair of work boots but Dog is a hard size to fit."

"Uh … you want some suggestions?" I asked tentatively, not wanting to offend anyone.

"Are you kidding? I'll try anything at this point."

Relived I told her, "Get him to wash and soak his feet every night and use a pumice stone on them. Dead skin and calluses hold moisture which is a breeding ground for bacteria. Use all natural fiber socks if you can and change them a couple of times a day if necessary. You want something that is going to wick the sweat away from the feet. Set the shoes so they can dry in the sun every day so loosen the ties and spread the tongue out. For the inside of the shoe mix up some baking powder and dried sage and sprinkle it inside at night; leave it in the next day then knock it out and replace it each evening after that. You can also soak his feet in vinegar a couple of times a week for a couple of weeks; it is supposed to help kill any bacteria by raising the acidity level."

"I'm going to try that stuff as soon as we get home," she said enthusiastically.

We continued with what we were doing and then I asked, "If you don't mind a personal question how did you wind up in the camp? Were you and Dog together before?"

"Wow, now that's a story. My aunt was a school bus driver and she got drafted to drive some of the evacuation routes. I knew Dog before and we had gone out a few times but nothing serious. He worked at my uncle's garage. He never impressed my Mom and Dad much; they said he didn't have any ambition. That isn't strictly true, his ambitions were just a little different from other people's. I could have easily fallen for him but my parents … their attitude held me back. That all changed though when he was the only one to set out in the middle of one of the bombing runs to find me after the bus my aunt had been driving was hijacked. To make a long story short, while he was rescuing me his hands got badly tore up in a fight with some of the crazy people that were holding me and my aunt at gun point trying to make us drive them out of the state." She shook her head. "He'd been warned he'd get triaged if he came after me but he did it anyway, but it meant his hands didn't get looked at fast enough. Damp and cold really makes him hurt and he can't put the strength into the tools like he needed to so he could work in the motor pool."

"So that's why he wears those fingerless gloves?"

"Partly. He also just likes the way they look," she laughed. Then she sobered and said, "When I found out I was on the triage list too I thought my life was over. I didn't have a lot of marketable skills. I couldn't even work in the commissary or cafeteria because of the milk allergy. I was having a hard time earning the work credit to buy what I needed. Dog would turn up with something for me a couple of times a week and my dad finally said, 'Oh just marry the guy already and put him out of his misery.' It was Dog's perseverance that got us in the Ag Department and he's doing really well. We're hoping to get enough experience and supplies built up so that we can take our families and start a new camp … actually a private compound … after we get through this next winter."

Still trying to illicit information where I could I said, "I'm still not sure I understand the work credits everyone keeps mentioning."

Laying some under things over a folding rack that she had brought with her she answered, "First off, don't think of it like money 'cause that isn't what it is. Money is supposed to be backed and supported by some federal body and this isn't. It's just a convenience. It's a barter unit, kind of like a paycheck but then again not. Each job will earn you so many credits per hour. The more responsibilities you have the higher the hourly rate of credits you earn. Some infractions can earn you deductions in work credits; these aren't fines but penalties. The other thing is if you get in a hole with your work credits … lose more through infraction deductions than you are bringing in through work … you get sent to a work camp until you clear the decks. It isn't debtors' prison, though a few have tried to make it out to be that, but more accountability so that people are responsible and don't start racking up penalties thinking that it won't catch up with them."

I told her, "Sounds like a system that could be easily abused … on both sides."

She nodded, "Any system can be, but work credits can only be traded at the Base storehouse, and the Major punishes civilians and any personnel or staff alike when they get caught working the system. It's just as fair as it can be made right now. Other bases and camps have their own systems; this is the one that works for us. The Major lets people "save" their work credits and buy things towards building their own camp or homestead. That's what Dog and I … and our families … are doing." I had a lot to think about.

The rest of the afternoon was pretty quiet until Mateo and the other men arrived. There were no relaxed smiles this time however. I thought that it had been a bust but then again they were pulling several trailers on three vehicles … one on the transport, one on a vehicle that turned out to be a water truck and another on a vehicle that was a small fuel tanker. The kids ran up to Mateo and while he was not rough with them he simply picked them both up and handed them back to me. "Take them inside Leah. We had some bad company today. We … discouraged them … but Ortiz and I don't think they are smart enough to have learned their lesson the first time around."

I could feel the color draining from my face; it was a warm tide rolling away revealing a cold and barren wreck. This is the nightmare thing that I hadn't had to deal with much. It happened, continued to happen from what we'd heard, but it had been separate from the children and I; we had hidden away from it for a long time. My one run in with it – the night that I had chosen to shoot rather than watch Mrs. Trask be assaulted – wasn't even on our property and it had been at night when no one could recognize me or trace my actions back to me.

Nydia stiffened as she realized something was wrong though I don't think she understood what. Neeno was about to fuss because Poppy wasn't paying him the attention he thought he deserved but I bounced him in my arms a couple of times and it distracted him as it always did. Another look at Mateo's face and I calmed down and turned to take the children to the bunker. I didn't run but I did hurry.

Nydia had a mutinous look on her face for a moment and then unstiffened and went into the hidden room with me. "You're not staying," she said at her lip all but drug the ground.

"I need to help Poppy if I can," I told her quietly.

"You always leave," she pouted.

"Not because I want to." I kissed her head and she sighed like an old woman.

"You'll come back?" she asked with heart rending fear in her eyes.

"As soon as I can Baby Doll. You know the rules. No coming out unless Poppy or I come to get you. I'm putting a snack here for you two; it's peanut butter on celery sticks, your favorite, and you can even add raisins if you want. And here is the wind up lantern. If Neeno falls asleep just put him in the bed. OK?"

She shrugged. Nydia was young, not stupid. She'd been forced by life, circumstances … and me … to mature faster than her peers would have before this war or whatever it was that was happening to us. She knew something bad was coming. She was just angry. I would be too in her shoes. Just as soon as it seems life is getting better something comes along to pull your chair out from in under you before you have a chance to sit down.

The habits of my new life were put to good use and I had the house locked down faster than I could have explained what I was doing to someone else. I was turning to see what I could do with the containers and garden when Liz came around the corner of the house with Joseph and Juliet, looking stricken. "Dog says I …" She looked back over her shoulder and I could see the other men arming themselves and taking positions.

I looked at her and asked, "He sent you here with the kids?"

I got a disgruntled look from Joseph but Liz nodded and answered, "I … I … is there … anything …"

I looked at Joseph. "Do you know how to hit what you're aiming at?"

Surprised at my question I had to ask again before he said, "Yes ma'am. My brother … he … you know …"

"I don't need the details Joseph I just need to know if you can do more than point and shoot. I don't want to hand you a gun and have you shoot yourself or anyone on our side."

Standing straighter he said, "I know what I'm doing. I'm not as good as my brother but I'm decent."

"Good enough. Can you handle a rifle or a shotgun?" I asked him.

He shrugged, "Either or."

"OK, here's a shotgun. The trigger is a little stiff so you need to mean it when you pull it. I'm going to station you on the lanai. Don't shoot unless you have to. I don't want any more attention brought to the house than it already will."

"Don't worry. We get drilled with this stuff all the time on Base."

I looked at him sharply, "And why didn't I know this?"

He shrugged like it was no big deal. "I guess we thought you'd know. The Major is a bear about people being able to take care of themselves. All civilians are expected to take turns helping to protect the Base."

I turned to Juliet, "And what about you?"

"Rifle. I don't do so good close up."

Thinking quickly I said, "OK, you'll be upstairs at the front of the house. Same rule applies. Don't get involved unless you have to and keep your head down."

I turned to Liz and she took an involuntary step backwards. "I …"

Refusing to show my surprise I responded, "OK then I want you here, between the two of them. I'm going to be outside …"

"Wait! What?! No. I heard them … they want us inside and out of the way!"

"OK, calm down," I told her in my best soothing voice. "I'm not planning on getting involved in the battle … if there is one. We've got seven … count them seven … trained and experienced military personnel out there with high power weapons and the gumption to use them. Mateo also has battle experience and I assume that Dog has some of some sort as well."

"They came in scared Leah," Liz said still jittery but at least no longer yelling.

"I didn't see fear Liz, just concern. They're doing their job and getting things set just in case there is trouble. And that's what I need to do. I need to go check the garden and see if anything needs tending and protecting in case trouble does arrive. What you can do is make sure that … let's see … here they are … get these bottles filled with water from the potable water barrel and put some GORP together from this stuff I'm putting on the table. It could be a while before we know for sure what is going to happen and no one has had dinner yet. When I come back in I'll try and figure out something else constructive to keep us busy but for now just try and … well, not relax as I know that isn't happening, but just channel your energy into something useful. Trust me, it's how I kept from going crazy during all of the bombing and stuff that was going on around me when I was pregnant and alone except for Nydia."

I went outside and started bringing in all the container plants that I could move. Joseph was there helping which made the job go quicker. Liz looked like she was starting to pull herself back together; I saw her take the plants from Joseph at the door and move them into the house. I was really surprised by Liz's initial reaction and it must have showed though I was trying to keep it to myself.

"She's all right Leah … she just got beat up real bad and watched her aunt get killed when they was hijacked."

"When they were hijacked, not was," I said automatically.

A brief smile told me that Joseph didn't take it personally then he said, "She's lots better than she used to be but she still gets a little freaky at first. That's probably why Dog sent her here instead of to the trailer."

"Not to mention the trailer won't exactly hold up during a battle."

"You might be surprised. It's been armored up but it still isn't some place I'd want to be if we run into some of them foreigners."

I looked at him, "Foreigners? Like the enemy?"

"The regular army takes care of the real foreign troops. The kinds we – the refugee camps, National Guard, or the militia – run into most often are either deserters from the foreign troops or leftovers of those foreign aid workers. Most of the real immigrant people, both the legal and illegal types, try and keep to themselves 'cause they know if they cause problems the military will burn 'em out." It sounded brutal but so was war.

I continued to work 'til dusk. I went into the house and found that Liz had outdone herself; all of the bread I had baked earlier in the day was sliced then and made into peanut butter sandwiches. There was also a large bowl of mixed GORP sitting on the table. Liz herself had collapsed onto the sofa and was asleep. I remember being that kind of exhausted from nervous energy and envied her ability to just let go like that. I looked at Joseph and then slid the cabinet in front of the bunker door to the side and slipped inside taking a couple of sandwiches and some fruit juice with me.

Neeno was asleep and Nydia wasn't far from it but both jumped and nearly ran me down when they sighted the food. I cuddled each one, kissed them, and after they finished their sandwiches and laid back down I stepped back into the kitchen.

"That … is … so … cool." It was Juliet. She'd come down to go to the bathroom before it got dark and to grab a sandwich for herself.

"Yes it is," I replied. "But I would appreciate it if you and Joseph would keep it to yourselves."

Joseph said rather seriously, "Not a prob. If I live to have kids I'm gonna have me a place like that to put them. They ain't gonna grow up like me with no place to hide when the bad things happen."

Not sure how to respond to such a heartbreaking glimpse into what his life must have been like growing up I patted both kids and then grabbed the leftovers, put them in a dark-colored, soft-sided cooler, added my last bottle of insect repellant, and tried to find where the men had secreted themselves at.

I was carefully creeping along the fence line, my rifle bumping my hip as the strap slipped off my shoulder, when I spotted Mateo beckoning to me. I blended into the shadows as best I could and found not only Mateo but Sgt. Ortiz. Mateo already had a line of whelps around his collar area and gratefully dabbed some of the unscented deet on him and his clothes.

"Mi Tesoro," he breathed into my ear before kissing me.

Sgt. Ortiz was happy to see the sandwiches and water and left Mateo and took them to share with the other men at their various positions.

Using a very soft voice that disappeared under the noise of all of the tree frogs that had started to sing, "How long will you keep this up?"

"Through the night and into tomorrow. If they haven't struck by lunch time tomorrow we'll run a patrol and see if we can find any sign of them."

"And you sure you were followed?"

"Mmm," he said around a mouthful of sandwich. "They were after the fuel most likely. They're on motorcycles; small ones with good mufflers but that still makes them faster than travelling on foot. And they were armed. They spent a lot of ammo pursuing us. Several of them paid for their choice. Ortiz said if we hadn't had the fuel and other supplies he would have turned on them and burned them all."

"It's a wonder we haven't run into them before," I muttered, worried about our safety once the others left.

"Must be new to the area, or passing through. They were carrying individual packs but nothing big. Ortiz said it was only a matter of time before …"

We both stopped talking at the same time. We hadn't heard anything in particular but that was the problem. The frogs had suddenly stopped singing. Mateo was torn between sending me back to the house and having me travel unprotected through the bright moonlight to get there. I patted his arm and pointed to a path of dark that wound around the yard. I knew our yard and house as well as I knew my own feet and hands. It had been a long time since I needed light to move quickly over the ground. I'd spent months only coming out at night like some blasted vampire and I hadn't lost the hang of it.

I was half way around and in the corner under an overgrown crepe myrtle … more tree than the bush it was originally meant to stay … when I heard a stick snap. I stopped right where I was, becoming motionless. It could have been one of the military personnel but since they would most likely not appreciate being surprised I decided to avoid it. On the other hand it was weird how they didn't seem to know that just three poles down from where they were trying to climb over the barbed wire fence that was between our front yard and what was formerly Gerald's side yard the wires had been cut and they could have just walked right on through rather than acquire the rip I heard in someone's britches followed by a muffled curse … the fact that it was a muffled female curse and all the females on our side were accounted for led me to believe that I was in the exact kind of trouble that I had been trying to avoid.

I quietly slipped the rifle off my shoulder while I prayed that Mateo wouldn't hesitate if it meant the difference between shooting a female and protecting his own life. He'd been raised to never hit a female and that kind of thinking, though honorable, could get a man killed in this day and age. There wasn't a lot of time to think about it. The three of them were crossing right in front of me. Rather than shoot and make everything crazy I swung the rifle, with the safety still on, like a baseball bat into the face of the one in front. They were traveling in a single file. The butt of my rifle caught the first one square in the mouth and knocked him back into the other two who both went down, tripping under his unexpected weight. I brought the butt of the rifle down hard on the pile of bodies at my feet, connecting and causing pain each time. It was a quiet fight but it was quickly ended when Mateo and Baines showed up out of the dark.

No one fired a weapon and the skirmish was over pretty fast ending permanently when Baines put a boot to all three heads hard enough that it took them out. I wasn't shaking, not yet. Mateo pulled me into a rough hug which tilted my head backwards giving me a pretty good view of Juliet in the window. She was pointing frantically and I realized she had a perfect view from her perch. I pushed Mateo away and got his and Baines attention and then Juliet flashed five fingers on each hand twice and then pointed frantically down the street. Both men went on high alert but before I could head for the house the shooting started.

What a mess that was. In all of the uproar I became separated from Mateo when he told me to get to the house and stay out of any lines of fire. I didn't make it back to the house. Someone ran at me out of the shrubbery and grabbed me from behind. Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. I don't like that anymore now than I had when Hank used to do it to me. Stomp, poke, scratch … they threw me from them just about as quick as they had grabbed me. They'd ripped my rifle away but that didn't stop me from grabbing a brick from a landscape border and bringing it down on their foot dropping them to my level. Without thinking about the consequences I slammed the brick down on their head a couple of times before grabbing my rifle and theirs and scrambling away like a crab. I ended up in the gardenia bushes shaking like a blasted rabbit trying to escape from a hawk.

The gunfire was loud in the normally quiet night. Nothing was coming my direction … or the direction of the house … and I hope it stayed that way. Nothing was getting in downstairs and then I heard the distinctive "drop" of the metal door being brought down in back. I hoped that Joseph was inside and hadn't opted to try and help outside though I realized that is likely what a boy his age and experience would feel compelled to do. Sure enough within five minutes I heard, "Psst … psst. Are you hurt Leah? Juliet saw …"

I grabbed him and pulled him into the gardenia bushes with me scaring him nearly as bad as he'd scared me. I put my hand over his mouth and then shook my finger at him. He shrugged but I could tell he wasn't the least bit repentant. I shook my finger silently at him again but he just ignored me and looked out through the bushes while pushing the barrel of the shotgun through ready to fire if needed. I was completely out of patience with him but I put it away and mentally told myself that Dog or Ortiz could deal with him. Eventually through hand motions I convinced him to stay where he was while I crept around back to check to make sure no one was coming in from that direction.

Sure enough I spotted two people yanking and pulling at some squash and tomatoes and stuffing them in their jacket pockets. Something inside me snapped. They were taking food from my children, from my husband. They were destroying months of work, patience, and care. When they started kicking at what they couldn't carry away, damaging things out of spite I raised the rifle I still carried and …

I'm not proud of what I did. I don't expect soldiers are proud of taking the life of an enemy either. It was an act of war. They may not have been dropping bombs or even shooting at me or my family but what they were doing endangered us just as surely as the other actions would have.

Slowly over an hour or so the gunfire petered off. In the end it was a total route though we did suffer some injuries on our side. We had less than a third the number in our party as they did in theirs, but better weapons, better training, and greater experience made the difference.

Baines got some birdshot in his calf. Sgt. Ortiz got a bullet burn across his hand. Driver took a bullet through his shoulder but it didn't hit anything vital. Mateo's cheek was cut by some shrapnel. Dog got into a fist fight with one of the attackers and they beat the tar out of each other. Joseph … I nearly strangled him when I found out … lost an earlobe from a very close encounter of the bullet kind.

Lopez was matter of fact and told him, "You won't be wearing an earring in that ear again Bro."

The impulse to strangle came when I overheard Joseph respond, "Cool. It was always trying to get infected anyway." I swear but it must be that the entire male species suffers from Y-Chromosome related insanity during battle. My stomping around and growling at them all for getting hurt and worrying me sick only made them snicker or puff up like a peacock.

The fight was over. No more bad guys … or bad girls … and there was nowhere for my adrenaline to go. I fussed over the men and then had to let them go do their thing once the bleeding was stopped or patched up by Lopez. The children were asleep so that was out because there was no way I was waking them up until morning. Liz was off fussing over Dog. Juliet and Joseph were checking the equipment on the trailer. That left the garden and that's where Mateo found me trying to fix what the baddies had tried to destroy.

"Leah …" I heard him but couldn't seem to stop what I was doing long enough to respond. "Leah?"

He took the broken plants out of my hands and pulled me up out of the dirt. "There isn't enough light for this. Come. You need to lie down for a few minutes. The morning is soon enough to try and fix the damage."

I'm the kind of person that is great during an emergency. I stay calm, cool, and collected. I stay focused. No histrionics from me thank you very much. But once things have calmed down and there is no place to put the excess adrenaline I start shaking. I refused to cry but I couldn't seem to stop the shaking. Mateo held me. Part of me felt horrible … stupid and cowardly … but the greater part of me was simply too grateful that he was still there to hold me, for me to lean on. Eventually I was able to pull my control back together.

"Everyone is going to be hungry early so there isn't any sense in trying to sleep. I'll … I'll make hash with some of the smoked gator and make a veggie omelet with duck eggs. All the bread … I'm sorry … it got used up last night and …" I was starting to lose my concentration again.

"Shhhhh. Mi Corazon, me Vida … it's all right." The dam broke and I did cry a bit. It helped more than I wanted to admit but it took a lot of my energy with it. Mateo convinced me to go be with the children for a bit and despite it all I did fall asleep.

I only woke up because I heard giggles. "Nonny snored."

"Shhhh Nydia. You'll wake her."

"But Poppy," the little girl whispered. "It was so funny. I had to roll her over before she woke Neeno up."

A could hear laughter in the voice that said, "Shhhh. Nonny must have been very tired and …"

"And Nonny is going to die of embarrassment if anyone else heard her snore," I moaned.

Nydia and Neeno giggled and squirmed onto either side of me. I looked up bleary eyed at Mateo and asked, "What time is it?"

Nydia answered for him, "Breakfast was hours and hours ago."

"What?!" I jumped up and realized that Mateo must have partially undressed me at some point because I distinctly remembered just falling across the bed fully dressed. I yanked the sheet over myself and looked daggers at him through the light of the wind up lamp.

He grinned without remorse, "You needed sleep. And now you need to eat. I'll take the children and …"

"Beat them?" I growled only half in jest since they were both doing some sing song thing that went "It's raining and pouring and Nonny is snoring …"

Sure enough it was raining. "Oh no. My garden."

"Easy Love," he said as I scrambled into clothes behind a dressing screen. "The damage wasn't as bad as it looked in the dark. Liz was able to put most of it to rights and the rain will help keep the roots moist until they take hold again. We did lose two tomato plants – a cherry tomato and one of those stripey ones – and I pulled all the fruit and put it on the counter."

"Seriously Mateo," I said coming from behind the screen with as much dignity as I could under the circumstances. "What time is it?"

"Not late," he said.

"Mateo …."

"It is only ten-thirty. I meant for you to sleep until lunch but these two monkeys …" The kids laughed and bounded out of the bunker.

I rushed to Mateo and hugged him. "How's your cheek? Let me see. Did you eat? Was there any more trouble? Are …?"

"Shhh. Everything is fine Leah … or … well, you know what I mean. Everything has been dealt with. Fortunately, the rain did not start until after Ortiz was able to track back the enemy's path to their base camp. There was a brief skirmish with the three that were left behind to guard their bikes. And no, there were no children as I know you will ask. These were all older teenagers and young adults in their early twenties."

"A gang?"

Mateo shook his head as we walked out into the kitchen. "Not a traditional one but more like a group of scavengers living off whatever they could find. Ortiz said either they hadn't run into many homesteads so hadn't attacked en masse like that often, or maybe they had done it so often they overestimated their own strength. Either way, they've been eliminated."

"Eliminated," I mumbled then sighed. I would have said more but I wasn't sure there was anything that could be said. They were the ones that turned it into an us-or-them situation. They didn't even attempt to trade, their only thought was to take. "What … what was done with … with the bodies?"

"There were too many to bury and it is too wet to burn. I suggested they find a large septic tank and dispose of them that way."

I blanched but knew under the circumstances it was the best that could be done. "Away from here?"

"Hmm? Oh … yes. That private school … Berean Academy? … that one that is down the highway a bit. It has a large commercial sized tank and it is far enough away that we don't have to worry about immediate ground water contamination."

The Crew came and went through the rest of the day and I cooked using some of their supplies and some of ours … fried green tomatoes figured prominently in the evening meal … on a grill set up under the lanai since it continued to rain. Montrose came over and helped Mateo set up a radio station and showed him how to operate it and gave him call signs and symbols so he could contact the Base on a regular schedule if we wanted to or call for help if we needed to. The help wouldn't come immediately of course but it would at least let someone know we were in need of assistance.

Liz came over shame-faced and it took a while for me to get her over it. I rolled my eyes and said, "And who was sleeping while everyone else was working this morning?"

"After last night you needed it. Dog said you were shaking like a leaf and trying not to show it." We both congratulated the other on trying to overcome what bothered us most, not completely convinced that either one of us meant a word of it, and we went on. There was no choice, all you can ever do to move forward is to put one foot in front of the other and try to drag as little baggage along on the trip as you can.