CHAPTER SIX – A Hard Lesson, Learned the Hard Way
(from the novel, The Rocky Road to the End of the World)
Copyright (c) 2013 by Sandra Bell Kirchman
All rights reserved.
My eyes had barely closed, when Mark patted my shoulder. “Alex, wake up.” I jerked awake and sat up stiffly, which produced a groan of protest from Tilly.
“It’s too dark for me to continue in unfamiliar territory. I don’t want to switch on the lights on the Jeep in case looters spot us. We just can’t tell where they might show up, and the Jeep is a pretty good prize for anyone heading north.” Mark rubbed his eyes and yawned. “I’ve pulled the Jeep over on the other side of the ditch, and I hope we’re hidden by trees here. It might just be a small patch or it might be a huge forest. I can’t tell, but it’s the best we can do for now.”
I patted his hand. “You’ve done great, Mark. Do you want me to stay up and watch, first shift?”
“I don’t think so,” Mark replied. “No point in staying up to watch when you can’t see past your nose, it’s so dark. I would if the moon was out, but you know what a light sleeper I am. It’s almost as good as being away.” He laughed, and I smiled, glad that he could still make his little jokes. “Let’s get some rest, and we might make reasonable time tomorrow. I hope we can find some purple gas, though. I don’t want to use our last few cans of regular gas.” He yawned again, practically inhaling all the Jeep’s oxygen in the process. “I hope the dogs will sleep okay.”
I hoped they would too and fell asleep practically before I finished the thought.
My dreams were scattered and unresolved, pretty much the way my day had been. What woke me up was Oreo whimpering in his sleep. I shouldn’t have taken him our of his carrier then; he was still sleeping along with everyone else. Mark always said I worried way too much about the dogs. In retrospect, it was a hard way to learn a lesson I’ll never forget.
I reached past Justin, who apparently slept like the dead, as we had already seen the previous day. By twisting quietly and kneeling, I could just back and slip open the door of the carrier stacked sideways behind Justin’s seat; Oreo cautiously pushed it open with his nose.
Usually he bounded and/or wiggled his way to me, his tail waving with delight. This time he crept…past the gap between Justin’s seat and the rear door. I picked him up, just about breaking my puckering string in the process. Oreo was a husky little bundle. Tilly greeted him quietly and Oreo pressed against me, trembling. How terribly hard this was on him. He hated the car, and twenty hours in one was almost too much for him. I felt I should have let him out when we stopped for a little exercise and a potty break. I have to admit I didn’t want to face Mark with such a request.
Oreo shivered and whimpered again, and I knew what the main problem was. He had to go out, and not just pee this time. I didn’t know what to do. I looked over at Mark and he was sleeping as if he too were dead. He must have been exhausted. He wasn’t a youngster anymore, and dealing with people stressed him out. I began to realize what I had done to him by inviting Justin and Patty to ride with us.
Oreo whimpered again, more urgently, and I made up my mind. I quietly opened the door and let Oreo down on the ground. Tilly thought that was a great idea and jumped down as well. Her silvery coat glowed in the moonlight. I look up and thought, damn, it’s almost as bright as day. This is not a good idea. Oreo had run ahead to find the “perfect” spot for a poo. I picked up Tilly and trotted after him. I could see well enough to spot him in the underbrush and I let Tilly down to do her own little duty. Just as I was picking her up, the sound of someone crunching through the brush made me spin around.
“All right, lady,” a man said, emerging into the full moonlight, “you’re gonna help me get that vehicle.” He waved his gun at me. “I will use this if I have to. I want that Jeep.”
I gasped. “You’re the man from our last rest stop. How-how did you catch up to us on foot? It’s not possible!”
He gave a low chuckle and couldn’t resist a macho boast. “You never saw me in my old beat-up Chevy. I came to, just as your tail lights winked around the bend, and followed you. I’m not stupid enough to attack a vehicle full of possibly armed bozos, so I was just waiting for my chance. And you’re it.”
He grabbed me roughly by the arm and thrust me ahead of him. “You’re going to go back to the car and wake up the driver and tell him he has to come out. Tell him anything…like, you twisted your ankle and can’t get back in the car by yourself with the dog. That’s it. Give him the dog. That’ll distract him.
“Get moving, and limp like you mean it.”
I had almost blurted out about Oreo still in the brush, then thought better of it. It would serve no useful purpose letting him know about the dog, and maybe Oreo might startle him at a good time.
He gave me a push to get me started. I stumbled and started limping. At the same time, a whirlwind of growling fury flew at us…at the man, actually. I had never seen Oreo in a killing rage, but he had only one thing in mind: to get this terrible man away from his beloved Mommy.
The man pivoted with a startled exclamation just as Oreo grabbed his shin. From the sound of it, my dog must have taken a chunk out of the leg. Oreo may have been small, but he had very sharp teeth. The man was yelling, I was screaming, then there was a shot. I stood still for a moment, staring at Oreo crumpled on the ground, a dark stain on his side oozing heavily, smearing his fur. I dropped to my knees, still holding Tilly and set her carefully against me. She was trembling and didn’t want to go anywhere. She nuzzled Oreo.
I felt the pulse at his carotid artery, but there was nothing. I held my hand to his little nose but felt not even a whisper of air. The pain of his passing crushed my heart, and filled my eyes with tears that would not fall. I thought I was having a heart attack, but I didn’t care. My little baby was dead, and it was my fault.
The man jabbed cold steel against my neck.
“Get up, lady. You are just lucky I don’t put bullets in you and the other little mutt here.”
I got to my feet and trembled, feeling sick to my stomach, and stood there.
“Now turn very—“
Another shot rang out and the man’s body slumped against me. I convulsively pushed him away, and Tilly yipped as his hand swiped her on the way down. He lay still at my feet, right beside my baby. The nightmare enveloped me, my life was running right out of me. I wanted to scream my sorrow until I had no voice. I knelt on the ground, sobbing.
A hand gently gripped my shoulder. “Are you hurt?” Mark asked.
I shook my head, unable to get any words out, the sobs building up into something I didn’t think I could control. Mark walked over to the man and pushed him onto his back with his boot. Kneeling down, he felt for a pulse. He stood up and shoved him again, a monumental disgust showing in his motions.
“Oreo?” Mark asked, bending over to touch the still dog.
That’s when the dam burst. I cried as I hadn’t since my mother died twenty years ago. My heart felt like it was about three sizes too large for my chest, and I had trouble catching my breath. My beautiful little Oreo, such a gentle, sweet soul, and he was gone…and it was my fault.
Mark touched me on the shoulder again. I looked up and saw the sorrow on his face. I made a huge effort to get myself under control. Oreo had been Mark’s little buddy. He was always telling Oreo, “It’s hard looking after da wimmins all day. Us guys gotta stick together, right, Buddy?” A shudder went through me but I clamped down on it.
“Babe, we better get going. We don’t know if that guy had any friends around, or if all this noise is bringing someone to investigate…or loot.”
I nodded my head vaguely. “Sure, Mark, soon as we bury Oreo.”
Mark was silent, and I looked up at him again. His stunned expression faded quickly to a look of hopelessness.
That look shocked me into a state of realization. I was putting him another corner. Here I had not only gotten Oreo killed, but I was jeopardizing Mark, the other two people, and the other two dogs with my sentimental notion that a burial was necessary. I just couldn’t stand the thought of wild animals tearing his little body apart.
Mark jumped up. “Wait here, I have an idea.” He ran back to the Jeep while I felt Oreo again to make sure he was dead. From the placement of the entry wound, it looked like the man had got Oreo with a purely lucky shot, right in the heart. He was definitely dead. I tried to convince myself that nothing that happened to his body now was going to hurt him.
Mark returned, carrying Oreo’s carrier, still with the pee pad and the quilt and blanket.
“You’re worried about animals eating Oreo, right? We don’t have time to bury him, but we can put him in here, bundle him up, and put the carrier, tightly closed and locked, up in a tree. That will keep him safe.”
Tears streamed down my face. “Thank you, Mark,” I said softly.
It didn’t take us long to wrap him lovingly in his blanket and for Mark to put the carrier up in the limbs of a burr oak. It was silly, I know, but I liked the idea of the pretty place we’d found for him. He had loved barking at strange noises and he loved sitting in the sunshine in our beautiful backyard. He would feel somewhat at home here. Oh, damn! I shook my head and hurried back to the Jeep.
Tilly had followed Mark back to the Jeep and he had put her inside. She sat on my seat waiting for me. I needed my dogs now, and Mark sensed it.
“We should probably let Ling Ling out to do her thing,” he said. “I think with just one other dog, we can let her loose in the vehicle.”
Gratefully, I took her outside. She wasn’t interested in playing, she was too sleepy. She quickly did her job and hopped into the Jeep and onto my lap.
By now, both Justin and Patty were awake. They wanted to know what had happened. Mark explained quickly to them, and they both offered condolences to us about Oreo. I didn’t want to talk about it now, so I changed the subject, while Mark backed us out of our spot and back onto the road, heading north.
“Mark’s driving without the headlights on because the moon is very bright tonight,” I explained. “Hopefully, no one will spot us. Good thing the Jeep is dark green.”
“Yeah,” Justin said. “Too bad there isn’t much wind. The sound of the Jeep will carry.”
Mark agreed. “There’s not too much we can do about that. It’s a smooth-running vehicle, but they’ll hear it whether it’s night or day. If it becomes too much of a liability, we’ll have to abandon it. But it’ll be at our timing and our choice of location.”
Apparently, Justin wasn’t too fond of the idea of leaving the Jeep, because he was fairly quiet after that.
And I sat there, hanging on to Ling Ling as if my life depended on it, the empty void inside me paining like someone had severed something vital.
* * * * * *
(Author’s Note: Sorry for being late with this installment. I had an accident which cause me to rest more than I normally do. I don’t want to say what it was, but my gluteus maximus and a fall downstairs were involved.)