Brigid Barkley, the TV reporter, slid into the folding chair behind the log where Kenny Lane usually sat. The sky was dark and a small fire was burning in the fire pit. This was the time of night when soldiers would gather and rehash the day.
In the absence of WIFI, the event was well attended. Often, adult libations would flow. A strict two-drinks limit was strictly self-enforced unless the soldier was going off duty for a two day leave.
The event became one of the ways that new soldiers were blended into the operation. There were still FAR too few soldiers, given the work load, to have formal training. Sitting around a campfire and listening to war stories would have to suffice.
Brigid had a nose for news. She quickly ferreted out the fact that this was one of the few venues where information was not edited. She dressed in battered fatigues and insisted, upon pain of firing, that none of her retinue follow her. For these few hours she flew solo.
One of the newbies was carping about “The Skipper” being a strange bird. “He is a cold fish. It seems like he really does not want to talk with me…like he is always distracted…” as Kenny walked up.
“You know,” Kenny started, “we are asking you to do a lot of things that are out of your ‘wheel house’.”
Kenny looked around and asked, “How many of you are new in the last week?”
Half a dozen hands went up. Brigid kept hers down, sitting in the shadows.
“Normally I wouldn’t talk about a commander but circumstances are anything but normal. I think you deserve to know a little bit about the character of the man you are serving under. I ask you to be discrete. What I am about to tell you is not for public consumption.”
Everybody, including Brigid, unconsciously leaned forward in their seats. Kenny was a master story teller and known to bend the story a bit to make it a bit better in the telling, but his tone implied that this was a story that did not require any ‘bending’.
“Chad, your commander, is the most famous man in Sedelia and nobody knows his name. And that is exactly the way Chad wants it. Chad is El Patrón. Chad could have anything he wants in the new government of Sedelia and all he wants to do is go home to his wife, Mardi.” Kenny said.
“That doesn’t make any sense.” one of the newbies said. “I’d be getting what I could. Hell, he deserves it. If he really is El Patrón then he saved what, 30 million people from starving?”
“Well, you ain’t Chad Izzo.” Kenny said.
“Chad and Mardi had a two-year-old child when Calexit happened. Shortly after the split a directive went out that “special needs” kids needed to be registered with the government. Brianna, that was her name, wasn’t quite like the other kids. Maybe she was special needs. Maybe she wasn’t. Chad and Mardi decided it wasn’t any of the government’s business and did not register her.” Kenny said.
“It may seem stupid now, but at the time folks believed that ‘self-awareness’ did not occur until age 4 and so it was OK to abort children, if they weren’t normal, up until it was time for them to go to Kindergarten. Chad and Mardi did not want to take the chance.” Kenny continued.
“By the time she was six, it was clear that she was not ready to go to school, especially the way Cali was running them. Mardi decided to keep her home and home-school her. The Department of Education sent a Social Worker after Brianna when she did not show up for school on her sixth birthday. The State took Brianna from Chad and Brianna for being ‘unfit parents’ two weeks later.” Kenny said.
“What’s the big deal with that? Lots of kids get taken from their parents.” one of the newbies asked.
Kenny stared at the hapless young man for a full fifteen seconds before answering. The temperature dropped palpably in that interval. Finally, he said “Brianna died of starvation five weeks later. Special needs kids are odd. Doctors try to make sense of it by giving them ‘diagnoses’ but it is a rare kid who has just one thing wrong with them.” Kenny said. “Brianna would only eat Mardi or Chad’s cooking. The people at the State facility never called Chad or Mardi. They never fed her intravenously. They. Just. Let. Brianna. Die.”
“And ever since, the Cali Department of Education has had a hard-on for anybody in Tulare County whose last name was Izzo.” Kenny finished.
“That still don’t explain why all the Skipper wants to do is get back home.” A different newbie observed.
“A lot of people would just fall apart after something like that.” Kenny said. “Mardi and Chad aren’t like most people. They decided to push back.”
“Did you ever read about ‘The Underground Railroad’?” Kenny asked. Seeing people nod ‘Yes’, Kenny said, “That is what they started doing with special needs kids.”
“How would you know?” one of the newbies challenged.
“I am probably the only person Chad or Mardi would trust to deliver a tanker load of gasoline to the other side of the gates of Hell knowing I would do it without asking any questions.” Kenny said. “There is a possibility that they asked me to deliver certain ‘packages’ that were not on the manifest. Ain’t sayin’ I did and I ain’t sayin’ I didn’t. Just sayin’ its possible.”
“So why is he in such a big hurry to get back?” one of the girls asked.
“Some of them ‘packages’ weren’t healthy enough to go the next station. Mardi nursed them back to health, but by then they had bonded. She had lost Brianna. She sure as hell wasn’t gonna lose another.” Kenny said.
“So how did they hide those kids from all of the people from the Department of Education” another kids asked out of curiosity.
Kenny started cackling. “That’s the funny part. Mardi and Chad taught little Adam and Sammy that the chickens would protect them and that the boogy-man always wore dress shoes. So those kids just skedaddle into the chicken coop every time they see somebody coming up to the house dressed all fancy. Sure as hell those city folks ain’t gonna look in a chicken coop for kids who might be there.” Kenny finished.
“So you are saying the Skipper has a bunch of pet retards back at the ranch. Damn! Why would anybody give up fame in fortune for them?” one of the boys exclaimed.
The girl sitting next to him, the one he was trying to impress, slapped at his arm. “Hunter, you are a retard.”
Kenny said, “I can’t explain it. The thing about Mardi and Chad is that once they decide you are part of their family it is a done deal. It ain’t something anybody earns. It just is. That is just the kind of people they are.”
“The thing about Chad going to the city to be a big shot…think about them kids. There ain’t no chicken coops and every body is wearing shoes. It would be pure hell for them.” Kenny said.
Another kid asked with furrowed brows, "They named their kids after beer, "Samuel Adams?"
Kenny said, "Well, yes. They did. But not for why you are thinking. They knew that there are microphones nearly everywhere. They picked names that automated eves-dropping software would skip over. So, yes, they did name them after the beer. But it was to protect them in case a phone hiding in a pocket overheard a conversation it wasn't supposed to."
That is when Brigid slipped away from the fire. She had just been handed the scoop of her lifetime: Not only the identity of El Patrón but the reasons why he was so elusive. She was going to have to figure out how to play that information.