Haven Page 30


The animal didn’t seem all that thrilled about having Bodo’s big old butt on the back. It reared up a little, and Bodo had to grip onto Winky’s waist with both hands to stay on.


She handled the horse like a pro, leaning into the horse’s motions and jerking the reins sharply to the left. It had the result of making the agitated beast spin to the side. It quickly calmed down, or at least stopped trying to get rid of Bodo. It pranced a little as Winky straightened its head out, twitching its tail left and right over and over. I could hear the swishing of the stiff black hair from where I sat.


I was glad it was Bodo on that particular horse and not me. My bad arm made horseback riding a lot more complicated and scary than it would have been on a good day, and I was no horsewoman. I preferred to have my feet on the ground. But I knew this would be faster, especially considering how sore my muscles were and the state of my wound.


The buggy and ATVs were filled with supplies and had no room for any more passengers. At least I wasn’t walking behind the line like the fifty or so odd kids I saw milling around.


Several of the kids were scrambling to load up the last bits of stuff into the swamp buggy and trailers behind ATVs. I saw a gas can being emptied into one of them. It made me wonder how much fuel they had left. They’d sacrificed so much already, and now they were doing even more, all in the blind hope that I was leading them to safety and a new home.


The pressure brought on a massive headache. I reached up to massage my forehead. I missed Kowi even more now. He’d been so good under pressure, so smart about managing his people. Every single one of us was going to miss his wise counsel, even me. He’d come to represent almost a father-figure to me, even though we were pretty much the same age. It seemed like I’d lost another dad, and that just plain sucked. If anything happened to Peter while I was gone, I wasn’t going to make it. I would just give up.


“You ready to go?” Paci asked.


“Yippy kye-oh,” I said without a trace of humor, thoughts of my friend making me feel like we had little time left.


Paci laughed. “I haven’t heard that in too long. Yippy kye-oh, motherfucker.”


I couldn’t help but smile at his good humor. I knew he was going to be mourning the loss of his brother a lot longer and deeper than I would be, and it was nice to know that at least for this moment, he wasn’t completely miserable.


Paci nudged the horse with his heels and made a clicking noise.


The animal moved forward, jerking me back a little. I gripped onto Paci more tightly, trying to ignore the fact that my hand was lying flat against his abs. I could feel the muscles moving beneath his warm skin.


“Careful, I’m ticklish,” Paci said softly.


I was very tempted to test the truth of that statement, but I knew better than to play that game. Bodo and I were cruising through troubled waters right now, and it would be a big mistake to do anything that would be hurtful or rude like flirting, even if no one but Paci and I knew about it.


The swamp buggy took the lead, winding its way through the corrals and off onto a path that went through the sparse trees circling this part of the compound. I hated that it made so much noise, but there was nothing we could do about that, and we needed its hauling capacity.


The people riding double on horseback came next, then the cattle and sheep, with the dogs running alongside keeping them in line. The ATVs and people on foot made up our caboose.


One of the ATV trailers had six chickens and one rooster in a group of small boxes, and the other ATV trailer had two piglets in a dog kennel box. They went from making little grunting sounds to squealing in fright as the four-wheeler started moving. The only ones who didn’t seem to be bothered at all by the journey were the dogs. They ran alongside the walking animals, keeping them in line, totally focused on their work - unwavering and never distracted.


I wished I could be so singularly-minded. The entire time we walked along, I was jerking my head left and right, waiting for canners to appear out in the distant trees. I worried about how we’d fend them off out here in the open. I thought about the carrier pigeons and the special code we needed to learn so we could send and understand messages. I thought about my boyfriend and the man in front of me whose warm skin beneath my hand felt so inviting. I suffered under the heavy strain of guilt and fear, wondering how I was going to make it to age eighteen without dying of a gunshot wound, a stabbing, or even just a plain old run-of-the-mill broken heart.


***


About three hours into our trip, the swamp buggy stopped. One of the riders spurred his horse on to ride up to the driver’s side of the vehicle, exchanging words with him. We couldn’t hear anything they said; they were too far away.


“What’s going on?” I asked, leaning to the side so I could see around Paci better. Nothing seemed amiss to me. The path ahead was clear for a long way. There were some dense trees up ahead, but that was it.


“Don’t know.” Paci shifted in the saddle, making the leather creak.


Winky and Bodo turned around and came back to be next to us. “What are they doing?” asked Winky.


“I have no idea,” I said.


I shifted to get down, but Paci put his hand back, catching me on my side and keeping me in my spot behind him.


“Just stay. If we have to get out of here in a hurry, I don’t want you on the ground.”


My blood chilled at the idea of racing off on this horse while all those other kids stayed on the ground. Easy targets. Not to mention how sore my crotch would be from the abuse of this horse’s hard butt muscles.


The kid who had run up to talk to the driver came cantering back to us.


“Trouble ahead, maybe. Caught ‘em in the binocs. Four at least.”


“Where are they?” I asked. I searched the far-off trees, seeing nothing.


“Dead ahead. We have to pass through that grove to use the shortest route to the prison. We can’t risk going anywhere near the highway.”


“Bring me to the buggy, Paci, please.” I wanted to see for myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the people on watch; I just wanted to figure out what kind of threat these strangers might pose. Maybe they wouldn’t be dangerous at all.


The horse surged forward under Paci’s commands, and we trotted to the buggy. My teeth chattered in my head the entire way, and I was glad when it was over. I much preferred a walking horse to one in a hurry.


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Rob leaned way out of the driver’s seat. “Yo, what’s up?”


“Can I borrow the glasses?” I asked.


He handed me the binoculars after taking them from his buggy passenger. I couldn’t see inside to know who it was. “Here you go. Check out that bunch of trees right there,” he said, pointing to a section of the landscape that was particularly dense.


I put the lenses up to my eyes, and Paci turned the horse sideways. Once the beast calmed down and stood still I was able to focus on what I was looking at.


At first I saw nothing. Then I noticed a girl standing on the edge of the woods. She was wearing a bright red shirt and hard to miss now that I had better eyesight. I scanned the area around her, and about fifty yards to the left, I noticed something weird in the trees.


“What the hell?” I said under my breath.


“What?” asked Rob. “What is it?”


“Did you see that … treehouse or whatever that is?”


“Treehouse? No. Let me see.” Rob held out his hand for the binoculars. Before he could put them up to his eyes they were yanked away.


Rob looked at me and rolled his eyes. Then Trip’s voice came from inside the passenger area.


“It’s a treehouse. She’s right.”


“So what’s that mean?” asked Paci.


“It means this is someone’s home, so we just need go tell them that we’re passing through and we don’t mean them any harm, that’s all. No big deal.” I wasn’t sure if I was trying to convince them or myself of that fact, but either way, my brain wasn’t paying any attention to my calming words. My heart was beating like crazy and my headache got a lot worse all of a sudden.


“Who’s going?” asked Bodo.


It got silent.


“I’ll go,” I said.


“No, I’ll go,” came Trip’s voice. “Anyone got a white shirt?”


I looked around, not sure why he suddenly wanted to be dressed. He seemed to be very attached to walking around half naked.


Everyone had on patterned shirts, and mine hadn’t been white in almost a year. No one responded.


“I just need to wave a peace sign around, I’m not going to wear it. Come on, someone has to have something white.” The passenger door to the buggy opened and slammed closed. Trip came around the front of the vehicle and stood next to the head of Paci’s horse.


“Here, take my sling,” I said, pulling it up over my head. I unwound it from the bottom of my elbow, trying not to jerk my arm around too much.


He reached up and took it from me. “Thanks.” He met my eyes for a second, and I reached out and tapped him on the shoulder with my toe in a gentle kick. “Please be careful. Peter would never forgive me if something happened to you, and he can be a serious pain in the butt when he’s not happy.”


Trip gave me a very charming half smile before going all serious again and turning around. “Okay, I’m going. If they do anything aggressive go into defensive mode. No one come in after me. We have no idea how many people they have hidden in there.” He mumbled under his breath. “Could be a whole damn army.”


“We aren’t going to just leave you,” said Rob, sounding pissed. “We’ll come back at night and get you out if they take you. Count on that, man. Count on it.”


“Do what you think is best. I won’t blame you if you choose not to.” Trip walked away, holding the sling up high above him and waving it around.


We all watched as he got farther and farther away, his form shrinking in the distance. We traded the binoculars around, each of us on horseback taking turns watching the reaction of the treehouse kids. Only the girl with the red shirt showed herself, and she did nothing but stand there. The other three Trip had seen were staying undercover.


The animals in our convoy stomped their feet every once in a while making their harnesses jingle, and the sheep let out a few bleats now and again, but those were the only sounds we heard. I kept waiting for a gunshot to take our friend down, my heart nearly exploding with the stress of it. Please keep him safe, please keep him safe!


Aside from the obvious grief I’d feel if Trip got hurt, I didn’t even want to consider how poor Peter would suffer. Thoughts of my sensitive friend who’d already been through too much pain made me want to wrap Trip up in a giant bulletproof body cocoon and roll him all the way to Haven on a damn dolly. This was a stupid idea. Why did I let him go?!


When Trip finally made it to within ten feet of the girl and nothing happened to him, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Maybe the Miccosukee and Creek would be able to keep this chief. Maybe this chief wouldn’t be killed in cold blood like Kowi had been.


We waited for what seemed like forever for Trip to negotiate our passage through the treehouse kids’ land.


***


I was looking through the binoculars when Trip turned around and started waving my sling around in a circle. I couldn’t tell what he was trying to do. “What the hell?”


“What’s he doing?” asked Paci. He twisted around to look at my face.


“Here. Take a look.” I handed him the binoculars.


Paci watched for a few seconds and then kicked our horse as he lowered the glasses away from his face. He handed them to Rob as we rode by. “Come on, everyone! He’s telling us to advance!”


The convoy started up again, and I wasn’t sure if I was happy we were moving or not. My butt had gotten somewhat of a rest, and now the damn saddle blanket was grinding into my nether regions again. I was going to have a rash where girls should never ever have rashes. I gritted my teeth through the discomfort, knowing that this pain meant I was alive and that I was better off than a lot of kids this week. I had zero right to complain.

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