Haven Page 17

He laughed once, but entirely without humor. “You are the ball-biter. I can tell by your attitude.”

“Ball-biter?” asked Rob, sounding totally confused.

I held my hand out. “Winky, give me the gun.” I wasn’t really going to shoot Jackson, but he didn’t know that. I wanted to know what he was doing out on the highway headed north. If I could get him to spill his secrets by scaring him a little, that would be perfect. And if I could also get him to shut up about the testicle biting incident, that would be a bonus.

If he didn’t tell us his secrets, I wasn’t going to shoot him. I planned to let the elements or some canners do the dirty work for me. I didn’t need attacks from my own conscience coming against me. Life was precious, especially now that we appreciated it more, and what I’d done to that canner Dave was still weighing very heavily on my mind. Even though he totally deserved it, it still wasn’t enough to make me forget that I’d taken the life of another human being.

Winky handed me the heavy nine millimeter weapon. I held it up to my waist level. “Tell us what the hell you’re up to or get a gut shot.”

“Damn, that’s dirty,” he said, his hand going down to rub his belly. “That’s the most painful way to die, you know.”

“I know a worse way,” I said, thinking of Peter’s poor little sister. I raised the gun to eye level, my arm straight out. My friends moved away, giving the impression they were maneuvering to keep the blood spatters off of them. When I turned my hand sideways, gangster-style, Jackson finally cracked.

“Yeah, okay fine,” he said, running his fingers nervously through his hair. “Jesus. You guys are nuts, you know that?”

Three more kids moved to the edge of the trailer and climbed down with help from Rob and Bodo.

“My family and I have a ranch just north of here. A ranch I’d like to keep secret if you don’t mind. I was out scouting around and came across this group of assholes who had this truck and the kids inside it. So I snuck up on them and bashed their heads in and took the truck. That’s it.” He shrugged like it was no big deal.

“And what were you going to do with all of them? That’s a lot of mouths to feed,” I said, gesturing to the small ragtag group of kids now standing behind the semi.

“It’s not a problem,” said Jackson, a note of pride in his voice.

I looked over at Bodo. His jaw muscle twitched, and my heart spasmed. How I wished I could hear him say that again with one of his silly smiles spread across his face.

“Seriously. I’ve had a long day,” I said, sighing for emphasis. I lowered the gun a little.

“I was going to use them for labor.”

When Winky started to bristle he finished quickly.

“And feed them! And give them a place to stay! Shit, girl. Just relax, would ya?” He was frowning at Winky, but at the same time obviously wary of her. “I told you … I ain’t no people eater.”

I couldn’t help it. The smile came whether I wanted it to or not. I suddenly couldn’t get that stupid song out of my head, the one that my dad used to sing sometimes in the car when we were on road trips.

A kid’s voice came out of the truck. It was like the voice of an angel or something it was so pure and sweet. “It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater…” And then a raspy cough promptly stopped the serenade.

Paci chuckled.

“What the hell was that?” asked Rob, finally tearing his gaze from Chantal’s lovely face to stare at the back of the truck. The owner of the voice was not visible from where we were standing.

“That’s Jessie. She’s our songbird.” Chantal’s expression hardened. “The other guys who took us said they’d make a lot of bank trading her.”

I grimaced, not even wanting to think about what that meant for Jessie. “Okay, that’s enough of that. No one’s going to the market or getting traded for anything.”

“So what’re you gonna do?” asked Jackson.

I stepped back, putting some space between him and me. Motioning for the others to join me, I waited until they were all behind me, leaving him standing alone.

“Please don’t shoot me,” he begged, trembling now. “I swear to God, I wasn’t gonna hurt anyone.”

“You left them in the trailer,” said Winky. “Some of them look dead.”

“What else was I gonna do? Make ‘em walk? It was the fastest way to get them safe!”

Everything he said made sense, assuming this ranch actually existed.

“Why don’t we have him take us to his place?” asked Rob. “Kill two birds with one stone … check out his story and take his cattle at the same time?”

“Hey! You can’t take my cattle!” He stepped forward but stopped abruptly when my gun came up again.

“We can, and we will. So stand there and shut up while we figure this out.”

“Shiiiiit,” he said, scowling and kicking at the dirt. “All this time and effort … all going to shit. I don’t know why I even bothered.”

I felt terrible. I was talking tough, but I could imagine what it would feel like to build a home that could sustain you and your group and then have someone waltz in and take it. If anyone ever tried to do that with Haven I’d explode.

“We need to split up,” said Paci, speaking in low tones so no one but our little group would hear.

“Yeah. Our people could be getting massacred right now, for all we know,” said Rob. He looked antsy, staring off into the direction of the Miccosukee village.

“Let’s split up then,” I said. “Who goes where?”

“Rob, Winky, and I will go to Kahayatle,” said Paci. “You and Bodo go with that Jackson guy. We’ll let the other kids decide what they want to do.”

“They’re not going to be able to do anything,” said Winky. “They’re all too weak. That guy Jackson probably did them a favor keeping them in the trailer, if his ranch story is true.”

“Maybe they can just hang out for a day here by the side of the road or something,” I suggested. “It’s not ideal but it spares them bumping around inside that oven for a while at least.”

“Let them choose,” said Bodo. “Den they can’t blame us if it’s bad.”

Everyone looked at each other, all of us eventually nodding.

“You sure you don’t want me with you in the swamp?” I asked Rob and Paci.

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“Yeah, we want you there, but you can’t let Bodo go off alone and deal with all that stuff by himself. And it’s our family out there,” said Winky.

“Yeah. What shorty said,” said Rob, flicking her braid.

She punched him hard enough in the arm to make him wince.

He frowned at her as he rubbed out the sting.

I broke away from the group and approached Jackson. “So here’s what’s going to happen: You’re going to take me and one of my friends over to your ranch. Once we’re there, we’ll decide whether we’re going to let you stay or take you with us.”

“But it’s my home,” he said in a soft voice. It was like all the fight had left him.

“Tough.” I hardened my heart. This was what we had to do. And I still didn’t feel like I could trust him.

I looked at Chantal. “You can get in the trailer and come to the ranch or you can stay here on the side of the road or you can take off. It’s up to you.”

“Are you really the ball-biter?” she asked, a blank expression on her face.

I sighed heavily, rolling my eyes. “I really wish you guys would stop saying that.”

“No one knows the ball-biter’s name. Just that she’s vicious and took the nuts off one of the most notorious criminals our world knows. At least in Florida.”

“Fine. My name’s Bryn, and yes, I’m the ball-biter, okay? Jesus.” I shook my head while my face flamed tomato-red.

“She didn’t have a choice,” said Bodo, coming up to stand next to me. “I was dare. He was goingk to kill her.”

Chantal held up her hands in surrender. “Hey, it’s no skin of my back. I’m glad she did it. Calmed him down a little.”

“How do you know?”

She shrugged. “I’ve been around. I’ve heard things.”

“Me too,” said Jackson. “Congrats by the way.” He grinned at me.

“For what?” I didn’t know why I asked.

“For being the most well-known person in the whole state. You’re like a post-apocalyptic celebrity.”

“Great.” I sighed. “I’m walking around with a target on my face. What wonderful news. Thanks for letting me know. My nightmares weren’t bad enough already.”

“Word is you’ve got friends, though. You ain’t no easy target. Good people are headed your way. You’re down south, right? In a prison or something?”

I frowned at Jackson. “How could you possibly know that?”

“You’ll see.” He was grinning ear to ear.

Now I really wanted to check out this ranch of his. I looked at my friends. “You go to the swamp. Get all the able-bodied kids you can find to meet us at the canoe rental place. Bring whatever trucks you have and anything that’ll move that is on this paper.

I pulled Peter’s list out of my pocket and handed it to Rob. “Take it all. The swamp’s been compromised too much. We’ll go back to it later.”

“What if they won’t come?” asked Winky.

“Then leave them one of everything so they can get along without us. Don’t force anyone.”

“They’ll come,” said Rob. “The place was getting torn apart when we were there. They moved to the ranches.”

I nodded. Turning back to Jackson, I asked, “So how do we get to your place from here?”

“It’ll be faster if we drive the truck.”

“Will it still work? I think I broke the brakes or something.”

“I’ll go check,” he said, looking pointedly at my gun. “If you’ll let me, that is.”

I waved the carelessly. “Go ahead.” I handed the weapon to Bodo. “Watch him, would you?”

Bodo took it from me and nodded once before disappearing around the side of the trailer with our prisoner.

Rob, Paci, and Winky had already left to retrieve their bikes, leaving me alone with the trailer’s occupants.

“I think we’d like to stick with you, if that’s okay,” said Chantal.

The other kids standing around nodded.

“Sissy and Jimmy said you’re good people. Their words.”

I couldn’t believe it. The Cracker Barrel kids again. “How do you know them?”

“They have contacts everywhere. I met them about a week ago, before I got snagged by the jerks who were going to trade us.”

“But how? How are they talking to so many people?”

She shrugged. “You’ll have to ask them.”

“No thanks.” I knew I’d never go back there. I didn’t want to get shot for breaking their back door, and that Jimmy kid didn’t seem all that mentally well-balanced to me. He might be calling me good people now, but that didn’t mean he’d feel the same way seeing me face-to-face.

I walked over and looked into the trailer. “Are those kids okay?” I asked, pretty sure they weren’t.

“I think two of them aren’t going to make it,” Chantal whispered. “But we can’t just leave them here.”

“Of course not,” I said, backing away. Then speaking to the group, I raised my voice. “Okay, if you want to go with us to check out this ranch - which I’m not even sure exists - you’re welcome to ride in the trailer. I’m going to be in the cab. If you’d rather wait by the side of the road for us to come back, feel free.”

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