Chapter 7

“We’re going to have to investigate the thefts,” Scar told Hope, after Daniel finished with her and they walked away. “Once is an accident, twice starts to seem fishy. Especially since both times have included workers from the clan. With only 28 people in the clan versus the 107 in the caravan, what are the odds of two thefts occurring at separate workplaces both including our clan members?”

“Very slim. That’s what worries me. Do you think one of us is really stealing from the locals? We’ve never had that issue before now. Not unless you count stealing from dead mercs,” Hope responded while chewing on a fingernail.

Scar pulled her hand away from her mouth and Hope grimaced at her old nervous habit. She hadn’t done that in years. She gave Scar a small smile and reached into a pocket to pull out the worry stone Scar had given her to help her stop biting her nails. She still used it as a focus when thinking through tough problems.

“Well, how do you want to start?”

“I need to see if Terra can take over my spot at the gardens and help today while we visit the affected farms,” Hope said and headed towards, where Terra was getting the children ready to go and work.

Scar nodded and said, “I’ll let Ryan know that I need to take care of something this morning and will be back to help in the afternoon. Shouldn’t take much longer than that to go look at the places and talk to a few people.” Scar jogged off to where some of the caravan men had gathered to get some supplies loaded into a truck.

Hope had a quick talk with Terra, who readily agreed to take the children over to the gardens to help out for the morning and work in Hope’s place.

“I can’t promise that they’ll be a ton of help, but they sure do try,” Terra said with a smile on her face as she ruffled her daughter’s hair. Bernadette stood next to her mom, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and yawning. The eight-year-old giggled at her mom as she reached up to smooth her hair back down. Hope smiled at the pair and thanked them. She promised to take over for them in the afternoon so the kids could get some classes done, and then headed out to meet Scar.

Scar and Hope went to the first farm. A saddle and a branding iron had been stolen from their animal barn. Hope and Scar frowned at this news, especially since Dante had said that Bernard and Lance had been branding the animals. That didn’t explain the saddle though. They talked to a few of the workers, but none of them remembered anyone acting suspicious. With no leads they headed to the second farm.

The second farm had a lot of smaller animals: pigs, goats, chickens, geese, sheep and a few miniature horses. The workers had been helping butcher some of the animals and get the meat ready for smoking. They also sheered the sheep’s wool and helped make cheese from the goat milk and collected chicken eggs. From this farm, a basket of wool and a set of sheers had been stolen. Once again, the girls asked around and came up with no clues.

On the way back to the clan’s camp, Hope frowned at the papers detailing who had worked at each place. A few men from the caravan had worked at both places, including Bernard, Lance, and Dante. Leo had also been at both places. Hope growled, feeling the urge to crinkle the papers up and throw them. “I don’t understand what any of them would gain from taking the missing items. None of our clan are thieves and I don’t believe the caravan workers are either. But someone is stealing from the locals.”

“Could the locals be hiding them and trying to make trouble?”

“Why? We come to help them and don’t ask for much in return, just a share in the food at the end of harvest.” Hope shook her head and folded the papers up and stuck them in a back pocket of her cargo pants. “We’ll have to keep our eyes and ears open. See if maybe someone appears to have a grudge against us.”

Scar nodded and with a wave headed off to rejoin her work team. Hope returned to the gardens where she should be working and met up with Terra. She found the other trying to keep an eye on Tali, who was both picking tomatoes, not all of which were ripe, and scolding two of the more rambunctious boys who sat covered in dirt. Hope covered her mouth to hide a chuckle and knelt next to Tali.

“Hi Tali. How are you doing today?” she asked, smiling at the little girl.

The four-year-old grinned back and said, “Auntie Hope! I’m good. I’m helping Auntie Terra.”

“I see that! You’re doing such a great job, look at all those tomatoes you’ve gotten. Want to help me take them to the ladies who are cooking them?”

Tali nodded and reached for the big basket of tomatoes. Hope laughed and used the handle to pull it up out of the girl’s reach. “Remember how I showed you to help me make sure not to drop them?” she asked Tali with a smile.

Tali giggled and smiling positioned herself under the basket, hands pushing against the bottom of the basket. “Like this, right Auntie Hope?”

“Yup, and let me know if I drop any,” she replied, walking at a slow pace towards the women set up in the big stewing and canning area. She winked at Terra as she and Tali passed her. Terra smiled back in gratitude and took the boys’ hands to lead them over to a pump to clean off. The women spotted Hope and Tali coming and chuckled amongst themselves. Once Tali and Hope made it over to them, one of them reached over and guided the basket onto her table.

“Oh my, this is certainly a lot of tomatoes. What a good picker you are sweetie!” She smiled down at Tali and Tali gave her a big grin.

Hope picked the girl up and settled her on a hip, “Yup Tali here is our best tomato picker.”

Tali grinned and said, “Auntie Hope we go pick more now?”

Hope smiled but shook her head, “Nope. It’s time for your lessons now. Auntie Terra will meet us back at camp, and after lunch you get to learn.”

Tali fidgeted a little and looked over at the woman who had taken the basket of tomatoes, “Are you sure? They need more tomatoes. You said I’m the best.”

Hope pretended to think about it then shook her head firmly. “Nope, Auntie Terra and your mom would get mad at me if you missed your lessons. Besides, you need your lessons to grow up nice and smart, and then you’ll be even better at picking tomatoes.”

Tali thought about this for a moment and then smiled, “Okay! I get smart and better. Then help more.”

Hope and the woman across from her shared a smile before Hope carried Tali back to camp, listening to the little girl chatter about her morning. Hope got the girl washed up and took her to join the other kids at the lessons area the clan had set up. Terra watched over the kids as they chatted and ate their lunch.

“Thank you for taking over for me this morning Terra,” Hope said with a smile as she watched the kids.

Terra smiled at her and said, “No problem sweetie. We’re family and we help each other. That’s the only way we’ll survive this crazy world.”

“Thanks again. Have a good afternoon with the lessons. I convinced Tali she needed them to get smarter and be an even better tomato picker.” Hope and Terra giggled at this and Hope said goodbye to the kids before heading back to the gardens to try and sort through the mess the kids had left behind.

Things progressed as normal for the next week and no new thefts had been reported. However, the missing items had also not turned up. Hope, Dante, and Scar were all watching and listening for any talk of someone acting suspicious, but none came. 

It seemed like everything was going to be fine again, until the alarm came.

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