“You serious?” asked Jackson.
“Yes, I am completely serious.” Bodo held out his hand for a shake. “I can’t train all da wild birdts, but I can train da ones I work with.”
“How many you got?” Jackson shook his hand.
“Only one now. And she’s kindt of lost. But I will have more later.”
“Good. You go on then and train that pigeon killin’ out of ‘em. These birds are critical to our EWS.”
“How does it work?”
Jackson stared at me for while, long enough that it made me uncomfortable. I battled with myself but forced my hand to stay still, even though it wanted to check my nose for stray boogs.
“Okay, fine. I’ll tell ya. But you gotta swear on your life and your boyfriend’s life that you ain’t never gonna tell none-a them kid-eaters what I’m gonna say.”
I crossed my heart with my finger. “I swear on all that is holy. I swear on the cattle you’re going to give me and the people of Haven.”
“Well, we ain’t come to an agreement on that yet, but I get your meanin’.” He turned around and walked with the bird back to her cage, putting her inside. Once it was closed again, he came back to us. “All our birds have leg bands. We put ‘em on when they’re just babies. They grow up and the band is permanent. They’re foot’s too big for it to come off. We can put messages like that one you saw inside the band.”
“But how does the bird know where to go?”
“Before all the world went to crap, we taught ‘em. And we’re fixin’ to teach some more, too. It’s dangerous, going out there, but we gotta do it. The birds ain’t gonna live forever.”
“How do you teach them?” asked Bodo, staring at Jackson intently.
“They teach themselves, basically. They’re amazing creatures. We put them in a small portable cage and bring them about a mile away the first time. We let ‘em go and they fly home. They always fly home. Every day we do it again, only farther and farther away each time. Eventually they can go from really far and always come right home.”
“But how do they know where home is if you have them in a cage while you transport them?” I asked.
“They use the magnetic fields in the earth and smell and sight. I’m tellin’ ya. They’re like magic creatures, these birds. Without them, we’d be in the dark all the time. I can’t tell you how many times they’ve saved our bacon.”
“But how do you send them somewhere else?”
“Well, that’s the tricky part. See, we have to get new birds trained all the time, because we can only get them to go two places: home and to their food stop.”
“Yeah. This is kinda recent in the evolution of carrier pigeons, actually.”
He looked so serious and sounded so academic, I was picturing him lecturing a university class, even though he definitely sounded like a redneck more than a professor.
“Used to be they only went one way. But somebody smarter-n me figured out they’d go where their food is too, and that they didn’t need to roost where their food is necessarily. So we rigged it up for them to have food at one stop and their home at the other. They can go back and forth between those two places, regular as clockwork, couple times a day.”
“So that explains you getting messages to and from the Amazons. But how do you get other info? Or don’t you get other info?”
“Sure, like I said … we get info from all over the state. You can imagine it like a connect-the-dots kinda map. I have links to the Amazons and Cracker Barrel and a few other places. And they have links to spots I can’t quite reach. We just pass messages along, like that silly game my sister used to play when she was little: operator. Only it’s more reliable ‘cause we ain’t countin’ on the birds talkin’. They just take the same message from point to point.”
I was too stunned to speak. These kids had done something so amazing, I wouldn’t have even dreamed it could be possible: communication over long distances. Networking on a massive scale. And secret, like a spy ring. They could totally thwart any attacks planned by the canners.
“I want in on this,” I said, feeling as passionate about it now as I did the cattle, maybe more so.
Jackson smiled. “I’m real glad to hear you say that, because we need a contact down there. Even though it’s a little worrisome that you have such a fat target on your head, the benefits are way more important now. But if you don’t mind, we’ll train someone else on the codes, and not you.”
I nodded like a crazy bobble head. “Yeah, no problem. Whatever you want.”
“You can teach me,” said Bodo, holding up his hand halfway. “I already know how to take care of birdts.”
Jackson frowned but nodded his head. “I’ll think about it. There’s time to figure that out. Why don’t we head back to the house and see what we can do about outfittin’ you to leave?”
We were just walking away when a bird appeared out of nowhere.
“Ya’ll go on ahead. I’m just gonna grab this message first.”
Bodo and I walked back to the house.
“That was the most amazing thing I think I’ve ever seen,” I said, hoping he’d respond. I didn’t want to be talking to myself all the way back to the house.
One of the larger dogs jogged over and walked next to me, giving me the willies. He was huge, and he didn’t seem very friendly. It was more like he was making sure I went where I was supposed to go.
“It is the second most amazing thingk I have ever seen. I think dat Nina is more better, but da pigeons are good. Definitely good.”
“I just can’t believe none of the Miccosukee or Creek knew about this. It would have been so helpful for them.”
“Dey alwayss wanted to be alone. Dey wanted to hide out dare, not talk to udder people.”
“Isolation is not the answer,” I said, mostly to myself. Isolation was the best way to become a sitting duck as far as I was concerned. And the idea that we’d have a network of friendly spies all over the state was just blowing my mind. I could see peace on the horizon. Real, lasting peace. I was almost giddy with it.
We reached the porch to find all of the kids sleeping, even Chantal.
Katy was sitting in a rocking chair with a big metal needle and some yarn.
“What’s that?” I asked, walking up the steps.
“Crochet. Ever done it?”
Thoughts of Winky sitting there like her crossed my mind. “No. Never.”
“I’m makin’ a blanket. Can never have too many of ‘em in the winter seems like, now that we don’t have any heaters anymore.”
She was right. Even in winter, Florida could get cold. It made me glad we were staying in a place that had tons of blankets and sheets already made. Hopefully, by the time we’d need to make more, we’d have looms, sheep and everything else that was part of that equation.
“So ya’ll want some cows, eh?”
“Yeah. We really do. And we’d be willing to trade something for it, but I guess we’d have to go get it since we came here with nothing.”
“Well, you brought us these here hands. I guess that’s a pretty fair trade for a bull and a cow.”
I felt a little sick. “I’m not sure I’m cool with trading people. Sorry about that.”
She shrugged. “Whatever. Your call. But we ain’t just gonna let you take two animals from our herd ‘cause you’re the ball-biter. Gotta have more juice than that.”
I sighed heavily. “Please don’t call me that anymore. It makes me sick to my stomach, and I really don’t want to see that stew come up and land on your front porch.”
She stopped crocheting and lifted an eyebrow at me. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Don’t push it. Seriously, that’s a memory I’d like to forget forever.” I shuddered for effect.
“Whelp, I have to say, I admire a girl who’d go that far to live. I might’ve died that day if it were me.”
“No, you would have bit the guy too.” I sat down in front of her feet on the porch.
“Ha! Then I’d be the world famous ball-biter, the girl all the kid-eaters wanna kill.”
“Why all the hate?” I asked. “I mean, it was just one fat asshole who’d had too much to drink and thought he was going to rape me. Why do I have such a big target on me now?”
“Well, the EWS say it ain’t just that. I guess you also kicked a few butts up near Orlando and caused a ruckus out by the Amazons’ place. And those particular kid-eaters were all related somehow. They move up and down I-95 keeping in touch. They do it the old fashioned way, though – using cars and motorcycles.”
“They’re going to run out of gas eventually.”
“Yeah, maybe. Or maybe they’ll figure out or find an alternative energy source, who knows. We just gotta hope they never catch on to our EWS is all.”
“What could they do to it? I mean, countries used them in the old wars, right? And they weren’t a secret, but they still worked.”
“Yeah, but if them cannibals know where the control points are, they could come in and smash us up and kill the birds. We’d have to start all over, and it’s work, let me tell you.” She sighed. “I ain’t complainin’, though. We got a good thing going on here, and even if someone comes in and smashes us up, I know we’ll press on. We’ve got friends now. More than we ever had before, really, even when the world was all put together right. And what’s funny is, no one seems to care anymore that Jackson and me grew up on a dirt patch and talk different. We’re all judged by how we survive and what we do for others now, and that’s all right by me.”
I looked around, out into the mostly empty fields and at the dogs goofing around with a stick in the dusty yard. “But don’t you get lonely out here with just your brother to keep you company?”
“Nah. Well, maybe a little. But that’s okay. It beats being dead.”
“You know, you could come live with us.”
“In a prison?” She chuckled. “No, thanks. Our daddy spent most of his time in one-a those places. I ain’t in a hurry to continue that particular family tradition.”
“It’s not like that, though. We’re turning it into a nice place.”
“I’m sure you are. And maybe someday we’ll join you. Who’s to say what tomorrow will bring? But I thank you for the invite. That’s awful generous of you. I know you got a lot of mouths to feed there.”
“Yeah,” I said, falling back into the reality of my life and why I was even here in the first place. I stood. “We gotta get going.”
Jackson came walking up at a fast clip from around the corner, taking two steps at a time. “You’re right. You gotta go now.” He pushed past me and into the house, letting the screen door slam behind him.
“What’s got into him?” asked Katy, no longer rocking or crocheting.
I shrugged. Whatever it was, it didn’t look good. I stood, suddenly nervous. “He got a message from one of your birds right before I came back here.”
Katy jumped up and ran in through the front door, abandoning her yarn and needle on the chair.
“What does dis mean?” asked Bodo softly.
I turned to face him. “I hope there’s not a problem at Haven.”
Jackson came bursting through the front door with a shotgun in each hand. He came right up to me without stopping, shoving the heavy weapon at me. “Take it.”
He stepped to the side and did the same with Bodo. “Take it.”
He reached behind himself and pulled a box out of his pants. “Take these. They’re shells. You have to go. I expect to get those guns back when I see you next.”