Haven Page 28


Please don’t let anything happen to Peter or any of the others while I’m gone. If I returned to Haven and death greeted me at the doorstep I’d never forgive myself for leaving. I knew exactly how Kowi felt and that just made me even more sad.


***


The trip to the ranch was way more treacherous than I had expected it to be. Mandy said it was the fastest route, but I might have preferred the longer one had she explained what we’d be walking through.


I saw no less than fifteen gators, and I lost count of the snakes at twenty. We even walked around a few of the monster pythons I’d read about in the news before the world had fallen apart - pets people had released into the wild when they no longer wanted them. These serpents had thrived in the Everglades, eating pretty much non-stop. Now they were big enough to eat a pig or maybe even a Bryn-sized girl. I ran past any I saw, praying that being big also meant slow.


The landscape was a mix of waterways and dry land, some of it just roots of trees linked together and some that appeared more solid, like it had sand or solid ground beneath it. The closer we got to the ranch, the less water we saw and the more it started to look like the area around Haven.


It was fully dark by the time we got within fifty yards of the gate. Mandy let out a birdcall that was quickly answered by someone inside the barbed-wire fence that circled the perimeter. When we got closer I was struck by how much it looked like a prison. They even had a watchtower.


“Who goes?” asked a familiar voice.


“Mandy and friends,” she said, sounding just a little happier than she had earlier.


“Rob, it’s me and Bodo,” I said.


“Oh, hell yeah! You made it!”


“Yeah, we did.” I wasn’t as excited about it as he was probably expecting me to be, but it wasn’t possible to be too happy with the memories of Kowi and Jason at the front of my mind.


“Awesome news, awesome.” He pulled me into a hug when I got close enough, holding out a hand towards Bodo. “Welcome to the ranch, guys. Welcome. So glad you’re both here.”


Bodo shook his hand and nodded his head. “We are glad to be here. Out in da middle of da snakes and gators.”


“Nice security system, eh?” asked Rob, letting me go and walking backwards through the gate.


“So, what’s the status?” I asked, waiting for him to secure the lock on the gate and then following him down a road into a treed area.


“We did some negotiating. We’ve got a small herd now, a couple looms and some other things. The trick is going to be getting everything down to Haven.”


“How many kids are coming with us?” I asked.


“About half,” said Rob.


“Wow,” said Mandy, sounding surprised. “Really? I thought it would be more, actually.”


“Yeah, well, more wanted to come but we convinced them to stay for now. We need to be sure we have the manpower at the ranch to keep the canners off. We don’t really have the swamp anymore, so we can’t risk leaving the ranches and farms understaffed.”


“That makes sense,” I said. “Maybe we could work out some kind of exchange system where people go back and forth for different periods. If they want. Or they could just stay in one place. It makes no difference to me.”


“Everyone just needs to be happy,” said Rob. “That’s the goal, right?”


“Yes. Security first, happiness a very close second.” I smiled at Rob’s enthusiasm. It was dark and late, and I knew he’d had as rough a day as we had, but he was full of energy. No way was I going to burst his bubble and tell him about Kowi, Jason, and Coli now. Waiting wasn’t going to change anything.


Rob sent a few birdcalls out ahead of us and soon we were joined by a group of kids. Among them were Trip and Paci. Both of them looked at me intently as they greeted me.


“Welcome to the main ranch,” said Paci, hugging me lightly. “The last stand of the Miccosukee and Creek tribes.” He stepped back and turned his attention to Trip.


“Welcome,” said Trip, shaking my hand firmly. He looked like he wanted to say more, but he didn’t. He just stood more stiffly and puffed his chest out a little.


Bodo walked up and held his hand out at Paci.


Paci didn’t hesitate; he shook Bodo’s hand and smiled. “Welcome to the ranch, Bodo of Germany.”


Bodo made a slight bow, sealing the formality of the process. It was almost funny, but at the same time ceremonial. I wondered if things would ever not be weird among the three of us.


“I hear we have some cattle for Haven,” I said as we walked through some trees and into a large hut. It was connected to several others and covered in the standard thatched roof. As people saw us coming, they stood and walked over to greet us. Trip led the way into the third hut from the end where he finally stopped.


“Hungry?” he asked, gesturing to the food that rested in bowls on a long, narrow table made of bamboo poles.


I gladly dug into a big bowl of the usual Miccosukee fare - grilled vegetables, mystery meats and hunks of fresh bread. The bread was my favorite; it had been too long since I’d had any that wasn’t rock hard.


I was halfway into my meal when LaShay arrived.


“Giiiirl, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” she exclaimed, bumping into people on her way over to give me a one-armed hug. “Damn, you got littler or somethin’.”


“I haven’t had any good Miccosukee food in a while I guess.”


“Well you need to get yourself some cooks over there or somethin’, ‘cause you lose much more and you’re just gonna disappear.”


“Peter would never let that happen. What’s new with you?”


“Well, I still only got one arm as you can see.”


Several kids nearby giggled. Apparently, LaShay had made the idea of being handicapped a laughable thing, which was probably good. Better than having it be a stigma or a reminder of a horrible past.


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“But I’m gettin’ good with this one I got left.”


“You should see her swing a bat,” said Jeremy. He’d walked up behind her and stood just to her side.


The big smile on her face told me his opinion was important.


“Oh, don’t be braggin’ on me like that. I’m still learnin’. Softball was never my thing before but I kinda liked it.”


Jeremy put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “I’m just glad I have her on my team.”


I smiled and shook my head. “I leave you guys for what … a week? And you’re already playing softball out here?”


“We always had it out here,” said Jeremy. “We’re just expanding our league.”


“Maybe Haven’ll have to get a team together,” said Rob. “We could challenge the ranch.”


“Haven versus Ranch. I like it,” said Jeremy.


“So what happened after we left you?” asked Rob, settling in next to me and Bodo on the floor.


A large group had gathered around us and everyone was listening intently to what we had to say. I felt the mood deflate considerably as my expression revealed that my news wasn’t good.


I cleared my throat before starting, not looking forward to being the bearer of bad news. “Well, we rode with that kid Jackson back to his ranch, the Triple Bar D.” I looked around and noticed several kids nodding and looking at each other. Jackson seemed to pass their test, because I saw no angry looks or fear in their expressions.


“We also met his sister, Katy,” added Bodo. “And his birds.”


We had promised to keep the EWS a secret, but I was certain that meant from canners and not friends. “You guys need to get in on that,” I said. “Trip, seriously, you need to send at least a couple people to the Triple Bar D to get trained and to get some birds.”


“Talk to Kowi about that,” he said.


Everyone went silent as they waited for my response. All I could hear was the pounding of my pulse and the rustle of a slight breeze through the trees before Mandy spoke up.


“We have some very bad news, everyone. Very bad news.” She had started to cry again. She tried to continue but couldn’t.


“What?” asked Trip. “What the hell are you trying to say?” He stood, his body language screaming fight.


“Don’t get angry, Trip,” I urged. “There’s nothing we can do now that we didn’t already do to take care of it. It’s just … really, really bad news. The worst.”


Mandy held up her hand, and we waited for her to gather herself. This was her news to deliver if she wanted to. I was ready to do it for her if I had to, but these were her people and it was her right to decide.


I looked at Paci’s smooth features and proud bearing. This was going to be hardest on him.


He turned his head and caught my eye.


I tried to beg him silently across the space between us to forgive me for not getting to his brother sooner. I really did feel like it was partially my fault for not being there to defend him. He’d brought me into his tribe and cared for me when I was desperately seeking shelter, and in a way I’d let him down.


Paci frowned, asking me silently what was going on.


I mouthed the words, “I’m sorry,” just before Mandy delivered the news.


“The canners killed Kowi,” she finally said. “When he went back for Coli. They got Jason too.”


“What?!” yelled Trip. “That’s bullshit! That didn’t happen!” The glow from the lamps lit up his angry face. The veins in his forehead and neck were standing out as he continued to yell. “Kowi is not dead! Neither is Jason! You’re wrong!”


Several girls started crying with Mandy. Jeremy’s face went from confused to startled and then shocked. His mouth dropped open, but he remained silent.


“Oh my god, y’all,” said LaShay. She wandered off into the darkness crying.


“Yes, he is, Trip,” I said in a low tone. I didn’t want to fight him; I just wanted him to understand. I kept my gaze lowered so he wouldn’t think I was challenging him. “When we got to the landing point, we found him in a canoe. He died as I stood there. We found Jason in a canoe too, higher upstream. He was already dead when I got to him.”


Tears were streaming down Trip’s face. “You saw Kowi before he died?” His voice was just above a whisper, broken and strained.


“Yes. I did. And I said a prayer for him after he passed on and asked my dad to look after him. I …” I had more to say, but I couldn’t get the words out. I dropped my chin to my chest and stared at my hands folded in my lap. My throat was hurting too much to talk, and my heart was breaking for all of Kowi’s family. I knew how much he’d meant to them, especially Trip and Paci.


“Tell me you got the guy who killed him,” said Rob, crying too. “Tell me you fucking nailed him to the wall.”


I smiled a little through my tears - not out of happiness but out of some misplaced apology for not getting to their brother sooner. “You’ll be happy to know that we nailed all ten of those motherfuckers to the wall. And we had help. Coli gutted their leader like a fish with her knife.”


“Good,” said Rob. “They deserved it.” He cleared his throat really loudly and coughed a few times, trying to rein in his emotions.


“Yes, they did,” I agreed.


“What happened to da two guyss who tried to take you?” asked Bodo.


I shrugged. “They’re dead.” I wasn’t proud of having ended their lives. Murder even in self-defense was nothing to brag about.


“Fed ‘em their nuts, I hope,” said Rob, wiping his nose off on his sleeve.


“Damn straight,” I said.


I looked up and caught Trip with a small smile. Then his face spasmed with pain again and he turned away, taking a few steps away so he could stand at the edge of the hut and stare out into the trees.

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