“Stay here with the wagon?”
I looked at Carmine and trusted he wouldn’t ask without a good reason to do so. He’d been having fun teaching me to drive the foul, cranky thing saying that it matched my personality somewhat. I couldn’t completely disagree with him which might be part of the reason I wasn’t able to be on completely easy terms with it yet. “All right. But give me a time that I should … I don’t know … do something if you don’t come back.”
He nodded. “You know them whistles I been teaching you? I’ll give you one within fifteen minutes. If you don’t hear any of ‘em you git and stay gone.”
His response and subsequent disappearance into the forest didn’t give me any time to argue. Thankfully well within the fifteen minute mark he whistled that he was coming in and he wasn’t alone, but things were OK.
I heard the horse before I saw them. I remained where I was however because the look on Carmine’s face was full of both anger and irritation. He turned to look at me and said, “We’re gonna have company. Lots of it.” He turned to look at Jerry whose face was intentionally blank and nodded. Jerry left and then Carmine said, “Let’s go. I want to get the wagon back to the cabin and in storage before people get a gander at it.”
I could see he was fighting frustration but I really wanted to know what was going on, thought I had a right to know. Finally, after a few minutes he said, “Sorry. Just hacked at Jerry for bringing his problems here.”
“Someone take over his winter camp?”
Sarcastically Carmine growled, “You could say that.”
I was almost ready to go ahead and tell him to spit it out when he finally said, “I’ll shred every one of them if they’ve brought trouble down on us. Just to be on the safe side I want to get our necessities packed up and keep ‘em that way until further notice in case we need to make a fast exit. I swear no good turn comes without a freaking kick in the pants.”
Finally irritated I said, “Carmine will you please explain.”
“Wha …?” Then he shook himself and said, “Sorry Saloli, just so dang mad right now. This was looking more and more like the place I’d been hoping for and now I’m back to not being sure … thanks to my own ding blasted family. And if they’ve brought SEPH anywhere near you by God, family or not I’ll leave ‘em to rot.”
At the mention of SEPH I immediately tensed and felt like diving for cover. I didn’t have time to really get scared though because Carmine started giving me details. “Jerry and the clan made it to their winter camp, no problem. Didn’t even get any of the ice we did around here. Maybe if the weather had been bad nothing would have happened … but if wishes were horses as they say. Anyway, seems the activities of the Harvesters and their ilk haven’t been producing enough results for the bigwigs in the branch of SEPH that monitors such things. Frankly the Harvesters are illegal as far as the public knows and their activities rarely make it to the media to be reported. Of course you got folks on both sides pushing and pulling.”
I sighed, “Yeah. The facility I was at was targeted several times for protest because people said that the Fertiles weren’t being … we really liked the way they put it by the way … we weren’t being shared out equally. Like we were some kind of property or public resource … which is how we were treated but … whatever.” I stopped before I could get started. That was a road I was trying to stop travelling down. It was in the past and I wanted it to stay here.
Carmine reached out and patted my arm and I knew he knew what I meant. “Right. But SEPH does use the Harvesters for their own ends; there’s rumors they even bank roll them though the proof on that is a hard trail to follow. But I’ve never heard of something happening like what happened to Jerry’s clan and the other ones that camped in that area. I can only hope it was a rogue group and not a new policy they intend on following.”
“What exactly did happen?” We’d arrived back at the cabin, started to empty the back of the wagon and haul things in.
“SEPH hit them directly.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “SEPH … it’s out here in the Wastelands?” I started backing towards the cabin ready to spring to my backpack … and throw some things in there for Carmine. I imagined knocking him on the head and dragging him away if he wouldn’t come willingly.
“Hang loose Saloli and let me finish the story. Yeah, a unit of people bearing the SEPH insignia attacked the clans. They were in the process of rounding up everyone for testing and transporting – you can guess what that meant – when a US military convoy shows up and whoops up on them pretty serious.”
“The US military? The real deal?”
“Yeah. This is still the US whether we get treated like it or not. We get military patrols through here a few times a year, just usually not in winter. No one makes a big deal out of it which keeps the ruction down to a minimum. They’re mostly after marauders that attack the Outland farms and foreign terrorist groups that try to set up bases on the western and southern boundaries of the Wastelands. The military also go into the hot spots and make sure the nuclear sites aren’t being exploited by anyone. The Black Hills is one of the best of the areas out here, there are some areas where you’ll die within a day of entering. You got lucky that you picked the right direction to blunder down when you first escaped.”
I nodded, “I had some idea was out here from looking at aerial photos I hacked into at the facility. Later on Asa marked all the known areas on maps for me.”
Carmine snorted, “At least he did that much right for you.” I didn’t make a comment; it seemed the wisest course of action to take. “The military didn’t stick around after they took the SEPH personnel and their equipment into custody. They left SEPH’s medical supplies but none of their own personnel to help Sally and the other people she has trained to take care of the injuries or to help bury the dead.”
I swallowed, “Anyone … anyone I know?”
“No one from the family, at least not this side of it; Jerry’s sisters’ clans lost some people and they weren’t very big to begin with. Both groups opted to follow Sally … remember I told you how it works … but nominally Jerry is the head as far as security goes.”
“Why’d Jerry come up here by himself if it was so dangerous?”
Carmine sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Honestly I suppose he was just trying to ease the tension that is bound to happen. I don’t get along real good with his sisters. They don’t like that I live outside the clans … they’ve all but said I’m too white. Not like I care what they think but it makes it hard to get along with them. Not everyone in their clans are like that of course, some are better than decent folks, but they set the tone and can make it hard on anyone that doesn’t tow their line.”
Not liking what I was hearing I said, “Sally didn’t seem like that.”
“And she’s not. Which, in case you haven’t guessed, is one of the reasons that mother and daughters only get together as seldom as they can without tearing up the family. They’ve said some pretty cutting things about Jack and Sally has had a hard time forgiving them for it.”
“How about I stay as far from the lot of them as I can?”
We’d finished putting things away and he grabbed me in a bear hug and said, “How about you let me come with you to whatever mouse hole you find?”
I finally gave him a small smile and said, “Have to be a pretty doggone big mouse hole.”
“I’ll squeeze in somehow. It’ll keep us warmer.” After a moment we both turned to the sound of vehicles moving along the mountain road that wove into town. No one from the road could see us but we could hear them and knew the neighborhood was about to get crowded. Carmine got an uncomfortable look on his face and said, “Look Saloli, I’m no saint and before … a couple of years ago … well … there’s a woman come to town that … she and I … it used to be … well … people were expecting that we’d … aw, blast it.”
I finally understood what he was trying to say. “You mean one of your old girlfriends has come to visit?”
He snorted. “She was a little more than that for a while and she didn’t exactly give me up willingly. She’s got a man now – whooped up on boy by the name of Johnson – but she’s never failed to try and get a dig in whenever we’ve run across each other the last couple of years. If she hasn’t changed she might take a few pot shots at you and … well … make it seem like something is there that isn’t.”
After I finally figured out what he was worried about I told him, “You mean she’ll try and make me jealous. Don’t worry about it. I trust you.”
Surprised he asked, “Just like that?”
I smiled at him because it was so obvious it really bothered him. “You’re an easy man to trust Carmine … at least for me.”
Well, one thing led to another and we didn’t wind up going down to the camp until early the next morning.