A impending downpour marked the events for the coming evening. The storm had rolled in suddenly and not one of us trekking over those rock smattered rolling hills were prepared for it. Not on our own, anyhow.
There were five of us, one pair and three airedales, all traveling our own way. The five of us threw what we had together and made a modest camp between two convex rock walls where we could hopefully avoid most of the run off. Ponchos and tarps and walking staffs were pitched in to craft a makeshift canopy and everyone gave what they could to set a fire near the edge of our somewhat cramped arrangement. With that, we settled on making food before the rain decided to begin in earnest and we were forced to sit practically pressed knee to knee.
Thunder rolled in along with the heavy aroma of the community stew steaming in a large pot over a crackling flame. Chunks and swathes from our individual stashes served to make what was to be, if nothing else, filling – something to keep us warm throughout the night.
Tenderfoot had tasked himself with charge over prepping the food. He claimed proudly that he could best any so-called chef, ‘bo or no, regardless of what fancy ingredients they used; he spouted all this with a huge bandana over his face which held back his prominent graying beard. It was sanitary, he said, common courtesy, really.
At one point, I took to hovering over his shoulder and silently scrutinized the amalgam he was stirring and he swatted, shooing me like I were a pesky fly. “Ay! Don’t go eyein’ it like that. You’ll ruin it with yer skepticism!”
I wrinkled my nose at that but before I could start an argument with the old-timer another voice chimed in.
“Just leave ‘im to it, hun. I’m sure it c’ain’t be no worse than anything we’ve ever had.” A melodic drawl from Niecey lounging at the edge of the tarp with who was said to be her uncle, Effex.
“Ya won’t have anything half as good anywhere else, miss! So count yerself lucky!” Tenderfoot spouted.
She waved her hand dismissively and then signalled me over to where she and her uncle sat.
I meandered over and knelt across from them. The young man worked quickly, deliberately and silently, never looking up from his craft – a long, slender piece of wood which seemed to be on its way to a wind instrument of sorts.
“He started it a few days ago.” Niecey shrugged, “I’m guessing he’s gunna want me to play whatever it is…” She trailed her glance to Effex who looked up, just then, and nodded gently. Niecey shrugged again. And this time with a warm tinge as she turned her eyes back to me, “keep your ears open for our next single. It’ll take some practice but that ain’t never stopped me before.”
Three twangs of metal declared that supper was ready and Tenderfoot spooned a hefty helping into each of our bowls but it barely seemed to put a dent in the hodge-podged feast.
“Help yerselves to as much as ya like,” Tenderfoot exclaimed and added, “but just so ya know, I ain’t breakin’ up no fights over the last bit.”
He had every right to be as boastful as he was. How a man managed to make a pile of scraps and leftovers into an honest decent meal was beyond me. Niecey said nothing but ate contentedly while Effex hummed to himself happily and shoveled the food into his mouth which seemed to please Tenderfoot who beamed confidently while he ate. Beyond the arrhythmic clatter of spoons on bowls and the pitter pattering crescendo of a storm to be, there was silence. And my eyes finally fell to the fifth element of our patch-worked party: a rather large man who introduced himself as Deadwood. He did not eat.
It took me awhile to work up the courage to actually speak to him, I mean, besides more than a passing word or relay of information. If anybody was half as curious as me, they said nothing nor asked any questions. It wasn’t until we had all turned in for the night, filed in to the crevasse where we hoped to sleep out the worst of the tempest. He sat closest to the exit next to me and then the pair followed while Tenderfoot tucked himself into the corner of the would-be cave.
Maybe something in the surreal darkness gave me the confidence to speak, or, perhaps, which was more likely, I had lost all sense to curiosity.
“Deadwood…” I practically squeaked.
“Catmint.” I could FEEL him looking at me in the dark.
I chose my words carefully, “you’re…from the Commonality?”
“You served with them.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I did not. I was labeled defective and to be recycled.”
“I refused to follow orders. You ‘uncivilized pests’ are misrepresented by The Empire. It took me many months to realize this. I apologize; however, I will right my wrong doings.”
“What did you do?” I heart raced in my chest in anticipation for the answer. Thunder and then lightening followed and for a brief moment I could see he had still not moved from where he sat. Staring at me.
“Stalked and murdered thirteen people much like you. Three-Owls; Pastor Vex; Summerwind – ”
I lurched forward and attempted to press my hand to his mouth in attempts to shush him. I barely made out a blur of motion. A wrenching pain shocked my wrist. I felt a dull pain just between my ear and my jaw. I can’t remember if I yelped.