Haven Page 18

All but one of the kids got back into the trailer with help from Chantal, who appeared to be the most physically fit of the group. She trembled from the effort of assisting the kids in, but she didn’t quit. It made me think she’d be a great addition to Haven. Probably any of these kids would. Everyone had something to offer our new world, and everyone made a difference in some way or another.

The lone kid who didn’t join them stood off by himself, thin, dirty, his hair in knots.

“What’s your name?” I asked, walking up to him. I could smell his unwashed body long before I got near.

“Dane,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.

“You going to wait for us here?”

He shrugged the slightest bit.

“If you want us to stop and get you on our way back south, put something on the road as a signal.”

“Something like what?” he whispered.

I looked around me for something that wouldn’t look so out of place it would alert anyone else coming by that someone was there. A dirty baseball hat came flying out of the back of the trailer.

Dane stared at it for a long time, his expression stricken.

I walked over and picked it up, handing it to him. “Put that in the middle of the road if you want us to stop for you.”

He held it in his hand so listlessly, I thought it was going to fall out. But then he turned and limped off the highway, disappearing behind some scrub beyond the ditch.

I shook my head, watching him go. That kid was on his last legs. I made a mental note to check that bush on my way back, regardless of whether the hat appeared or not. In his condition, he’d probably fall asleep back there for three days straight and forget to put it out.

Turning back to Chantal, I was struck again by how pretty she was, even standing in the back of a nasty trailer covered in grime. She was going to be a serious hit back in Haven if we made it that far. Hopefully she wouldn’t cause any riots. My heart burned at the idea of Bodo falling for her like Rob seemed to have.

“You okay?” she asked. “We can all wait here if you prefer.”

I waved her concerns off. “No, don’t worry about it. I’m cool. I’ll try to make the ride as comfortable as possible, but no promises.”

“Don’t worry. We’re used to it.”

“How long have you been in here?” I’d caught a whiff of something that smelled like outhouse, so I had a feeling it had been a while.

“Too long,” she said. “Close the doors and lock them. I don’t want anyone falling out like before.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat as I walked over to swing the big doors shut. Jumping up on the back step, I secured them in place, hating that I was closing people in and not letting them out.

Soon, I promise. I banged on the door. “You guys okay?”

“Yes!” came a muffled voice from within.

I leaped to the ground and walked around the passenger side of the truck, climbing up into the cab to join Jackson and Bodo. Neither of them said a word as I settled into the passenger seat.


We reached the ranch in about a half hour. We left the highway and bumped over paved roads and then dirt ones, finally arriving at a small house with several outbuildings around it. A group of dogs came out to greet us, all of them barking and some of them growling. I quickly counted eight of them running around in the dust kicked up by our arrival. Out in the fields nearby there were cows grazing. It was almost surreal how normal it looked.

“Dose are some bigk cows,” said Bodo, staring at the herd that paid us no attention. “You got lots of doggies too.”

“They’re charolais - the cattle. Biggest breed out there, pretty much. They were my father’s pride and joy before … well, you know.” Jackson climbed down from the cab. “The dogs are part of the family, and they do a lot of the work around here with us.” He looked at the ones bold enough to approach. “No, Bully! No Drake! Get back! They’re friends!” The dogs obeyed, most of them turning to either go over to the house or out into the field with the cows.

Three of the mutts stayed near Jackson. I didn’t know enough about dog breeds to know what they were, but they looked scary regardless. I was glad we didn’t have Buster with us. He would have been an appetizer for these beasts.

As we joined Jackson on the ground, the front door to the single story home opened and a girl came out with a smaller dog at her feet. Two of the welcome-party dogs walked over to greet her and then followed behind when she launched herself off the porch.

“Jackson, where have you been?! And what is that damn truck doing here?! And who the heck are these people?!”

Jackson gave us a conspiratorial smile. “That’s my sister, Katy. She gets riled up easy, but don’t worry, her bark is much worse than her bite. Usually.”

“Ease up, there, Katy,” he said with more volume, walking toward the back of the truck.

She barely spared us a glance as she strode by, following close on his heels. “Do you know how worried I was? Tater ’n me have been pacing so much we nearly wore a hole in the floorboards!”

“You can stop yelling any second now,” he said. It sounded like laughter wasn’t that far away for him.

She punched him in the back. “That’s for leaving us behind and almost gettin’ yourself killed!”

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He arched his back and shuffled a couple steps, but kept on walking. “Damn, Katy, ease up. Can’t you see my nose is broke?”

“I’m-a break your damn neck! How about that?”

He stopped at the back of the truck, turning to face his sister. “Katy. Chillax, girl. I brought some people.” He smiled wide.

I’d drawn even with Jackson, so I could see the expression on her face when it went from mad to excited. “Really? You found hands?”

I felt instantly sick.

Extending my palms out towards both of them and putting some distance between us, I said, “Hold up … you guys brought those people here to take their hands? What is that … some kind of sick fetish?” I backed up farther, taking my gun out of my waistband and holding it with two hands at waist-level, pointed at the ground.

The girl looked at me for a second like I was nuts. Then she turned to her brother and jerked her thumb in my direction. “Who’s the dumbass?”

Jackson chuckled. “She ain’t no dumbass. She’s the ball-biter.” He nodded a few times to drive home the point.

Katy’s mouth dropped open as she stared first at her brother and then at me. “No! Say it ain’t so!”

I wasn’t sure, but it was possible I’d just gone from dumbass to testicle-chomping celebrity in her eyes. This was one twisted family.

“Yeah. And she busted my nose and could probably bust yours too in a heartbeat, so if you could just tone it down about eighty notches, that’d be great.” He hopped up onto the back step in an easy, practiced motion and opened up the big doors, pushing them both wide as he jumped down.

Katy stepped back, a shocked expression on her face as she waved her hand in front of her nose. “Shew-eee, damn that smells. Oh my god, there’s kids in there!” She scowled at her bother. “You put them in there like that? They ain’t cattle, you know. They’re humans!”

“You were going to eat their hands,” I reminded her, my gun still out.

“Girl, you are some kinda stupid, ain’t ya? No wonder you’re runnin’ around bitin’ balls.” She snorted. “Darwin’s gonna take care-a you, mark my words.”

Bodo put his hand on my shoulder. I recognized it for the moral support it was. I appreciated it since I felt about as dumb as a box of rocks at this point.

Jackson looked at me with a smile. “Did I mention my sister is easy to rile up? And just to clarify, we were looking for hands as in ranch hands. You know, cowboys? People to help out around here?”

The lightbulb popped on above my head. “Ooooh, raaaanch hands. That makes waaaay more sense than what I was thinking.” I wiped my brow. “Phew. My mind went a little nuts there.”

“Nuts. That’s funny, comin’ from you,” said Katy, walking up closer to the trailer. She wasn’t laughing. Facing the kids inside, she said, “You guys wanna come out? I got some beef stew on the stove.”

All of the kids who were able to shuffled forward, most of them falling in the dirt when they tried to get down. Bodo, Jackson, and I helped them up while Katy led the way to her house. We left the sleeping kids where they were inside the trailer.

“It ain’t much, but it’s better than starving,” she said as she disappeared behind the door. “Wait on the porch! I’ll bring it out!”

“Jackson, how in the hell have you managed to keep all these cows out here without getting them taken?” I asked, marveling at their sheer size and number. They were all a whitish-creme color and looked as big as pick-up trucks from where I was standing.

“Well, lemme tell ya … it’s been a challenge. But I’m a diplomat, so that’s made it easier. And they ain’t all cows, obviously. We got bulls and steers, too.”

I frowned. “How does being a diplomat make it easier? I don’t get it.”

“I ain’t got no enemies, see? I deal with everyone square. You got somethin’ to trade, you eat my beef. You ain’t got nothin’ to trade, but you can work, you eat my beef. But you try to steal my beef? You get killed. No questions asked. And I bury you out by the road so everyone can see what happens to people who get stupid and greedy at the Triple Bar D.”

I nodded. “I guess that’s diplomatic. But are you saying you feed canners?”

“What’s that?”

“Cannibals. Do you feed the kids who eat other kids?”

He shrugged. “Maybe I do. I dunno. It ain’t like I ask ‘em when they show up what they ate before. Besides, as far as I’m concerned, if they’re eatin’ beef for a change, that’s a good thing, right?”

“You’re so matter-of-fact about it.” I was concerned he wasn’t getting more upset about the idea.

“It’s a strange, cruel world we’re livin’ in. Like the wild, wild West or the animal kingdom. Can’t say as it’s all that different than the one I was in before, personally speaking, but I aim to make a new life for myself and my sister however I can. Adapt and overcome, that’s what my daddy used to say, that sonofabitch.” His expression went from bland to angry.

“No love lost there?”

“Nah. He drank a lot. You ain’t the first person’s broke my nose. Maybe you knocked it straight for me.” He lifted his head and grinned, giving me a profile view from one side and then the other. “Whattya think? Is it straight now?”

“No, but I could straighten it for you if you want.” It did look like it was going to be a little crooked. I hadn’t noticed before I hit him whether it was straight or not. I’d been too busy thinking I was going to have to kill him.

He held up a hand. “No thanks, doc. I’ll just leave it be if it’s all the same to you.”

All this talk about fixing noses was fine, but it was time to get down to business. I didn’t know how to broach the subject in a casual way, so I just went for it. “So what’s the deal? Can we take some of your cattle or what?”

He laughed. “Where you gonna take ‘em?”

“We’ve formed a new community down south, at the Everglades Correctional Institution, as you know. We’ve got about fifty kids there now, but we plan to have hundreds. And eventually we’ll grow to city-size. But we need livestock. Lots of other things, too.”

He crossed his arms and rubbed his chin while he thought about it. “Normally, I’d just say no right outta hand. Them cattle’s about all that’s keepin’ us alive. But maybe this is worth some thinkin’.” He stopped with the chin-rubbing and grinned. “Let’s go eat and talk it over. Maybe we can strike a bargain.” A twinkle came to his eye which told me he liked to wheel and deal. Hope trickled into my heart.

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