Before She Takes
Of Custody and Cold
“They’re hunting us.”
The man spoke into a little fire crackling in a shallow hole circled by crumbling old bricks. The flames barely illuminated the cavernous interior of an old barn, timbers groaning in the gusts of a storm raging just beyond the clattering walls. Part of the loft had collapsed into ground level, still laden with the heaps of snow that had overburdened it. As flames danced in the black gloom, they also revealed three who sat around the fire in a corner stall.
A woman was bundled in a vintage, heavy leather aviator jacket too big for her, lined with fluffy wool partly exposed by the stylishly open collar. The large holes in the knees of her faded jeans were the result of wear and not a fashion statement. Pink knit mittens swathed her hands, snow boots her feet.
On the woman’s left sat a sad, acne-faced girl wearing a maroon windbreaker advertising in white the name and mascot of some middle school marching band. The holes in the knees of her frayed blue jeans had been patched with cloth of different colors and patterns. She had long twin braided pigtails, metal braces on her teeth, and wore a pink beanie snuggled down to her ears. The white, high-topped basketball shoes on her feet were styled for boys.
To the woman’s right sat a large, beefy fellow wearing a high school letterman jacket and crowned with a magnificent cowboy hat. His legs were in blue jeans, his hands in fur-lined leather gloves, his feet in arctic boots. He bore a large handgun in a holster strapped to his right thigh. Next to him was a big military rucksack. Behind him on the wall of old weathered planks were propped two sets of skis, two ski poles, a small .22 caliber rifle, and a large, bolt action hunting rifle with scope.
“Thanks for the boots and mittens, Clive,” the woman sighed.
“You’re welcome, Mandy,” the man answered. “I reckon you were going to lose your feet prancing around the snow in those flat cloth shoes.”
“Thanks again, sweetie. Did you bring anything for the kid?”
“I wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition…”
“I got that!” piped the girl, her sad face brightened by sudden hope. “Mr. Waterson? I got the reference. My Uncle Edgar loves those guys!”
“As I was saying,” Clive continued, “I followed your trail Mandy, aiming to rescue my wife from the Family. But hell woman, you met me coming the other way having done rescued yourself. Good on you darlin’; except you let a stray follow you home!”
“Clive!” Mandy cried, as the teen’s face fell back to sad again. “Seriously?” Then she turned to the girl saying, “Bonnie, I am so sorry my husband is being such a…”
“What’s he doing?” Bonnie asked.
Clive was digging into an exterior pocket of his rucksack. Eventually, he brought out two small plastic pouches and tossed them at Bonnie, who plucked them midair.
“Hand warmers,” the man explained, “Chemically activated. You can open these, shake them, and then hold them with both hands against your belly under your windbreaker.
“Thanks Mr. Waterson.”
“Yeah, you’re welcome Miss Poe. Now we can get you back to that uncle of yours with all your fingers intact.”
“I’m not going back.”
“The hell you ain’t, heifer!”
“Clive please,” Mandy pleaded, placing a hand on her husband’s arm. “Can’t we deal with this in the morning? It’s dark, plus there’s a blizzard outside, so she can’t go back now anyway.”
“Mandy, Colonel Goodkind will not let a minor child wander off without sending a Team to…”
“Chief’s dead!” snapped Bonnie. “The Prophetess, too. Your wife straight-jacked them both!”
“Bonnie!” shouted Mandy, feeling betrayed. “How…?”
“Wait!” Clive proclaimed, raising his right hand. “Miss Poe? My wife has trouble stepping on a roach. At the range, when I could get her to hit a silhouette target at all, she always put the holes in the legs. You see now why I have a hard time believing this woman killed anyone.”
“Well, she did,” the girl insisted. “And Mrs. Waterson, you can’t get mad because you promised you’d never leave me, remember? You promised.”
“All right, little lady,” sighed Clive, “Tell me what happened.”
Bonnie went on to describe the killings of the Chief and the Prophetess from what she’d seen and heard. Clive nodded, plucked his cowboy hat from his head and placed it over his heart.
“This one’s for Colonel Justin Goodkind; rest in peace, sir. As for that cult leader… well, I reckon she got what she deserved.”
“Hell yeah, she did!” Bonnie agreed. “I used to be like, super religious, you know? But thanks to the Prophetess, now I know it’s all crap.” The girl seemed suddenly aware of having crossed some line. Looking up sheepishly, she added, “Sorry. I guess I just don’t have much faith, huh?”
“Don’t beat yourself up, missy. You don’t need a lot of faith. What really matters is what you have faith in.”
“Mr. Waterson… what does that even mean?”
Clive bent toward her saying, “When I was a kid, a bunch of friends of mine dared me to walk across this frozen pond over at Old Man Donald’s ranch. All of us knew a kid who had fallen through the ice and drowned in the same pond the year before, so…”
“A kid drowned in that pond and his parents didn’t sue?” Bonnie cried.
“Oh, they tried. Their lawyer claimed the pond should have had a fence around it. Old Man Donald said if he fenced his pond, his cows couldn’t get to the water, which was why he’d dug the pond in the first place. He also pointed out how all his property was fenced, so the kid had been trespassing.”
“Mr. Waterson, are you going to tell me you walked across this pond? Cause that’s stupid!”
“It sure was,” Clive admitted, chuckling. “But I got down on my belly and started to Low Crawl across the ice, just like my Green Beret Dad taught me. I also had a rope tied around my foot with my best friend holding the other end. So, I made it to the other side, and then we dared Barry Hollings, the fattest kid in school. You know what fatso did? He runs across the pond at full speed!”
“Mr. Waterson, is there a point to this story?”
“The point, Miss Poe, is I had very little faith in the ice on the pond. But Barry had a lot of faith in the ice. And guess what? We both made it to the other side!”
“And if this… bigger kid had fallen through the ice?”
“Then he’d been screwed, no matter how much faith he had. You see kid, the object of your faith matters more than how much faith you have. As a wise Man once said, ‘if you have faith as small as a mustard seed…’”
“Before we get one of your sermons,” griped Mandy, “I’d like to repeat that I didn’t kill anybody!”
Clive smiled, claiming, “You don’t have the skills to pull off what happened to the Colonel babe, plus you had no reason to kill him; but I know who did. Yep…!” Here, Clive put his cowboy hat back on his head, “…I reckon Major Poe and Master Sergeant Hardin set you up.”
“Whose Master Sergeant Hardin?” Bonnie asked.
“Master Sergeant Jolene Hardin, your uncle’s girlfriend.”
“But why would Uncle Edgar kill Chief? They were like, best buddies in the Army, right?”
“Your Uncle Edgar and Justin -- the man you called ‘Chief’ -- served on the same Special Forces Team. When they retired, your Chief taught high school and your uncle did eight years in the CIA. When the excrement struck the air circulation device, Colonel Goodkind managed to mobilize most of his Army Reserve unit and their families into a survival community, and he asked your uncle to join him.”
“I know all that!”
“Oh, I reckon you do – but my wife didn’t. Anyway, Colonel Goodkind became so… owned by the Prophetess till he did whatever that woman said. Your uncle wanted to move the Family out of these mountains to a temperate climate come Spring so they could grow enough food to survive this Apocalypse, but the Prophetess put the kibosh on that. She also wouldn’t let him attack our camp.”
“Your Uncle told me why he wanted to attack us,” Mandy explained, eager to participate. “He said his spies discovered our camp was going to run out of food before Spring.”
“I’m afraid it’s true,” Clive admitted.
“So, we’re running out of food, but there’s still enough for you to eat chocolate cake!”
“Relax Mandy, I’ll take care of us. We can…”
Mandy forged on, saying, “Edgar believed the Boss would attack the Family – you guys -- because you were the only known source of food his gang bangers could reach. Your uncle wanted to hit the drug dealers first. He claimed he got Chief to go along with his plan, until your Prophetess told him, ‘No’.”
“So… Uncle Edgar and Jolene wanted Chief and the Prophetess… killed,” Bonnie concluded with the voice of one not fully convinced. “Well, why not just do it themselves?”
“And risk being lynched for killing the Family’s most popular leaders?” Clive chided. “I don’t think so, little lady. You see, Poe and Hardin – that is, your Uncle Edgar and Jolene – decided to frame someone from our camp for those murders. That way, not only do they eliminate their rivals without any suspicion on themselves, but they also create a convincing cause for the Family to attack us. Isn’t that right, Major?”
Mandy and Bonnie gasped in shock, bumping against each other as a big man coalesced from the shadows.
The newcomer, shedding snow, wore black leather gloves, combat boots, a large, arctic parka furred at the hood, and khaki “contractor” pants with multiple pockets. A large handgun rode in a holster strapped to his right thigh. He carried an automatic rifle of wood and black steel.
“Uncle Edgar!” cried Bonnie, mouth agape.
“Is… that an AK-47?” asked Mandy.
“Nah, this is the cheaper, crappier Chinese Type 56,” Edgar admitted.
“Thought you could sneak up on me, did you?” bragged Clive. “Where’s the rest of your team, Major? Freezing to death?”
“Actually, they’re in two-man quinzhees with a candle each, First Sergeant. Quite toasty, really. Now when will you join the winning team? Or is that too much for your pride?”
“Come on, Top Dog! Army Ranger? Medic? Survivalist? In the Drug Camp, you’re a great white shark in a kiddie pool. But in the Family? More like an alligator in a big swamp. Top of the food chain sure, but hardly the only one.”
“You think you’re better than me, Major?” Clive snarled, face darkening as he rose to his feet.
Edgar raised an eyebrow at Clive’s tone, but otherwise spoke normally, “You washed out of Special Forces School, Sarge. I know. I was there. Justin was, too. He and I earned our Green Beret. But you? Failure. Oh, don’t get me wrong Waterson; our Family needs you. You just won’t be Top Dog. I’m afraid the position’s been filled.”
“Were not going anywhere with you.”
Edgar pointed at Mandy asking, “Are you really taking your woman back to hang?”
“Me and the Boss and the Boss’s Mom worked it out. I think you should go now. Sir.”
For a long, excruciating moment, Edgar glared at Clive, who glared right back.
“Fine!” Edgar huffed, finally. “Let the record show I gave you a chance, Waterson. Come on Bonnie, let’s go.”
“No!” sniffed Bonnie, and she leaned on Mandy’s shoulder. “I want to stay with Mrs. Waterson!”
“You heard her,” Mandy snapped, throwing her arms around the girl. “She made her decision, you murdering snake!”
“’Made her deci…’ she’s thirteen! Bonnie, we’re leaving.”
“I say she stays!” Clive declared, and he lifted the heavy rifle from the wall.
“The girl is my dead brother’s child, Sergeant. Me and her brother are the only family she has left. Bonnie’s my daughter now. You can’t just jack my kid!”
“Uncle Edgar,” Bonnie pleaded. “Why don’t you and Clyde live with us?”
“So I can take orders from a bunch of drug-dealing gangbangers half my age?! Get over here!”
With that, Edgar strode forward and grabbed the girl’s arm. Bonnie shrieked as she was torn from Mandy and dragged to her feet. Mandy stood too, screaming. Clive levelled his hunting rifle at Edgar’s head, who froze at the sound of the bolt being racked.
“I reckon you’d best be movin’ on, sir,” Clive warned, voice colder than the room.
Edgar stiffened, but he let go of his niece, who threw herself into Mandy’s arms, weeping. Mandy held the girl tightly, rocking her back and forth.
“Let the record show that you kidnapped my child at gunpoint,” Edgar sniffed. “And incidentally, you may consider your offer to join the Family… withdrawn.”
Edgar bowed deeply, and then marched out into the dark.
Clive lowered his rifle, but Mandy noticed he was shaking.
“Clive?” she asked, “You alright baby?”
“I’m every bit a man as any one of those damn Green Berets,” he growled, upper lip trembling. “No. I'm better!”
Then he inhaled sharply and turned away from his wife to face the wall.
“Oh Clive!” Mandy called, and she let go of Bonnie to embrace her husband.
Bonnie came forward and joined the embrace. There they stood, no talk, sharing a three-way group hug in the gloomy little firelit corner of an old barn, the storm raging just beyond the walls.
About the author
Timothy was raised on a farm in rural Mississippi. His experiences have since taken him all around the world. He now teaches at local university, where he urges his Students to Run the Race, Keep the faith, and Endure to the End