It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

34


"So, can I watch?" Billee set her bow, quiver, and fanny pack against the wall and stepped over to the counter.
       Karen turned her head. She was wearing a pre-Undoing respirator and an old blue dishwashing glove. In her gloved hand she was holding what looked like a glass straw over a spinning disk with a tiny brass cartridge in the middle, clipped to the metal center post with a clothespin. "Mmh."
         "I guess that's a yes."
       Karen set down the pipette and reached up to turn off a switch on the canopy that hummed above the counter. She pulled down the respirator beneath her chin. Billee found the red suction marks around Karen's face funny, but for once refrained from comment.
       "I wasn't going to be much for conversation in this getup," explained Karen.
       "Oh, I didn't mean to shut you down."
       "No, I need to give my back a rest. It's been bugging me a lot lately."
       Billee glanced at Karen's changing shape. "Sure, that makes sense."
       "Been out watching?"
       "Running. There's a meeting and the phones are kind of down."
       "Ah.. Yes, Selk's been put on that, which bugs him; he wants to be playing in the 'control room.'" Karen stretched and leaned back in her chair, arm overhead. "I wish I could be outside more; this 'for the good of the Creek' stuff matters, but it can wear a person down."
       "Well, that cuts both ways; I'm out in all weathers and I think I'm going to be a old wrinkled prune by the time I'm twentyish."
       "You're exaggerating; you're growing into a real prize."
       Billee reddened and looked away for a moment, then back.
       "So, um, you had a row with th' Savage."
       "Mmh? Old news. Well, it was my own fault. I mean, apparently she has plans and I've been kind of crossing them."
       "How'd she get onto you so fast?"
       "I was throwing up at work."
       "Well, that would do it. But you're still on the chemistry thing."
       "Yes, but we had to tighten up my procedures. It's not good for the baby for me to inhale this stuff or work with lead. So we got this old range hood running and Deela's doing the swaging and such for me. The tough part was finding a glove; Ro-eena came up with eight, but all but one were left-handed."
       "I guess people used to wear out the right-handed ones more? But what's doing here?" Billee pointed to the turning disk, which was adapted from an old phonograph player, running at 78 rpm.
       "Well, we want to come up with a liquid primer, which we can drip into the cases and spin into the rims. It's related to the strike-anywhere matches."
       "For twenty-twos? Why not centerfire?"
       Karen was, yet again, impressed. Avery had put a lot of work into the young woman. "Those are a little tougher for us, because the primers are small and the liquid is not very reliable yet. And twenty-two was originally a black powder round anyway, so we feel we have a simpler path to a reliable product. I'm up to about forty percent ignition now; which is almost good enough to put some single shots into service. And a bunch of those have been collected, along with a couple of rimfire revolvers; so it seems worth doing. After these there will be shotguns and thirty-eights and forty-fours, I think; so I expect to be underground here for a long time to come."
       "Sorry about that."
       "S'okay."
       "So ..." Billee hesitated.
       "Spit it out." Karen offered her one of her rare smiles.
       " ... so, 'Mrs. Allyn' – what's it like?"
       "What is what like? Love, sex, pregnancy, marriage or widowhood?"
       Billee reddened again. "Mm, okay, all the above."
       "Same as everything else, only more complicated and more tiring, I think. I think. I, I don't know much about any of them. There was just that one time, and he went downhill so quickly. And so we took care of him and then he was ... pftt! Body off to Hall Farm just like that. I hardly knew the man. I don't even have a picture." Karen's eyes began shining. "He ... he meant well. But we never had a life, not like some people around here, so I couldn't really tell you any of what you're asking. The widowhood part ... well, people look at you liked you've attained some kind of status, which is a thing that has neither taste, nor smell, nor color."
       Karen pulled off the respirator and slapped it down on the counter. "Here, get this thing off me." She raised her blue-gloved hand and offered it to Billee.
       Billee tugged the glove off and laid it aside. Karen flexed her hand and looked round the room. "Let's get out into the air and I'll tell you all about pregnancy. That's the part I know best, starting with what's like to waddle up three flights of stairs."
       "You're not that big yet. Hardly even shows."
       "No, but it feels like it; and my bladder is giving me fits." Karen reached for her sheathed knife on the counter and jammed it in the sash round the waist of her tunic. She threw off the switches at her workstation and strode for the door.
       "Well, wait up, arready, yah?" Billee ran to her gear and gathered it up. She brandished her unstrung bow. "Ya-yah!"       

:::

"This meeting is now convened." Avery Murchison looked round the folding table that had been set up in the observation room. Mary Savage, her graying hair wilder than ever, sat at the other end from him, wheelchair versus wheelchair. Behind Mary's chair sat Selk, one of her "wizards." To Avery's right were two even frailer women: the recently widowed Ellen, Avery's mother, and Elsa Chaney, the mystic, who was filling in for her husband, Tom. To Avery's left were Wilson, formerly his right-hand man at Ridge, currently of Murchison's, and Emilio of New Ames. All sat in expectant attention. Ro-eena, the Recorder, sat unobtrusively in a corner. Her red hair was longer than Avery had last seen it, and she was braiding it absent-mindedly. He knew that though she was gazing out the thick quartz window toward the white snows of the Three Sisters, she wouldn't miss a thing.
       "Wednesday, May 25, 2051. Thank you for meeting with us on a full moon, ladies." This was greeted with tolerant chuckles; meetings held on or near the new moon had been known to fall apart over histrionics. No one disputed the connection; most Creek women ovulated with the full moon and then, two weeks later, went through symptoms that could not entirely be discounted. Not that it affected their work in general, but meetings had sometimes been a noted exception.
       The joke was that, Ro-eena excepted, those present were well past menopause.
       "Agenda? One; visitors. Two; patrols. Three; prospects for the year, agriculturally. Four; state of the armory. Five; matters concerning Karen, 'munitions engineer.' These last two are related? Hmm, okay. Six; proposal by Selk to investigate the purpose of the control console – I presume this one behind me? – the purpose for which the console was constructed. Take them in order?"
       Heads nodded.
       "Okay, one; visitors."
       Emilio and Wilson looked at each other. Wilson gestured with an open hand to Emilio, who looked round the table and cleared his throat. "We have exchanged visitors with the Roundhouse tribe and have a few observations. A Mr. Josep, one of their leaders, stayed two weeks in the Clinic in the care of Doctor Marcee under Doctor Tom's supervision. He's young, healthy, mentally agile, enterprising, and has been surprisingly forthcoming. His people are not what we would call well-to-do; a few crops, dogs. They've become expert hunter-gatherers and trackers. They've been encouraged by adverse circumstances to take up residence in a single fortified building, hence their name, and have suffered some attrition through deprivation and warfare, as we have. Notably they've reportedly encountered different invaders than we, which tends to confirm our impression that the risk of new hostilities may come from more than one source. Mr. Tomma has visited with the tribe and his story corroborates that of Mr. Josep. You may refer to Ro-eena here for details."
       Emilio cleared his throat again. "Several on the Creek have said it might be useful to encourage wider visitation with a view to recruiting the Roundhouse people to join with us in our life here, perhaps by, it would be, stages – say five to ten people at a time. We are very short on labor of all kinds at present."
       Elsa raised her hand. "What about religion? I've heard some unsettling things."
       "Yes, it would be the Christianity. Roundhouse has a version what used to be called Evangelical Protestantism, with emphasis on adult conversion, baptism by immersion, and 'worship' once every seven days. They regard the adult conversion as characterized by something called 'redemption,' after which the deity 'provides' what is prayed for, in the 'worship' time and whenever one prays. Those whose requests are fulfilled more frequently than the rest are regarded as the 'favored' of the deity, and respected accordingly. Mr. Josep is foremost among these, and as such, though very young, is what we would call an elder; I think they use the term, but with a different, it would be, intent, than we."
       "All innocuous enough; but have they commented on our social ... our ways in any way? What I'm getting at is views that might be prejudicial to an intensified relationship between us and them."
       "That would be the 'unsettling' part. I have visited with Mr. Josep. He does not say so, directly, but I think he does not think highly of Jeeah. And Tomma and Vernie are a worry to him."
       Here Ellen raised her hand, and Ro-eena called on her. "The not saying so is a help. At least, so far, they're not the Lawsons."
       Avery nodded, over his shoulder, to Ro-eena, and she called his name. "I think, from what Mr. Emilio says, there is a sentiment abroad to ask Roundhouse to send a few more people for another round of acclimatization, to feel out possible cooperative ventures. Eventual joint patrols, say. Does anyone here object at this stage?"
       Elsa signaled to Ro-eena impatiently, and before Ro-eena could respond, put in: "Assuming we behave ourselves and they behave themselves, none at all. But I'd also query the stores – can we feed them?"
       Avery looked to Ro-eena, who waved her hand resignedly. "Well, that leads into item three. Shall we skip Wilson's patrol stuff for the moment?" Heads nodded. "I can tell you that we're not in a terrific position here at Ridge, with the granary, veggie seed and root storage. Things have worn thin over the last year. Inadequate irrigation, insufficient labor for fall harvests of course, uncooperative weather, and transportation from field to here was very slow, with too much exposure in transit. We've had to hold a lot of things on the farms, and there has been loss to molds and such, and to vermin. Wilson?"
       "It's bad. The favas were not planted 'til March, and, worse, we'll have no winter wheat, to which ever'one was looking forward. It's a hot spring this year, and we've been in a rush with th' oats, barley and veggies. Potatoes are lookin' good, but if we lose this crop there'll be no seed potatoes – no reserve at all – and of course there's no place to get more."
       Emilio lifted a hand. "Irrigation is a matter for concern. We are behind on the production of fabric and the windmills have fared poorly over the winter. People are requesting that electricity be at least run from Ridge to operate pumps in the Creek."
       "By 'people' I presume mainly you mean the Bledsoes?" asked Avery.
       Wilson signed to Ro-eena and replied. "Yes, Armon at Bledsoe has gone 'round the Creek suggesting that Ridge wants all the juice for itself, for political advantage."
       Elsa fairly exploded. "What is with those people? They're our neighbors at Chaney and Murchison, but when we ask or offer help with the planting they make excuses; and I'm hearing about hoarding there, too."
       Ro-eena sat with her hand half-raised, unsure if procedure had been abandoned. Avery smiled over his shoulder at her, and she voiced his name, almost in a whisper.
       "Well, Wilson has fingered it; Mr. Armon has taken upon himself a work of dissension on the Creek, by representing Ridge as despotic in some way. Are we?"
       Dr. Mary signalled to reply. "A fair question, m'lad. You're the heir apparent to the elder Murchisons, who have been seen, by most, as the Adam and Eve of our little world. Yet you're seldom seen, or rather, in recent years, through no fault of your own, never seen, except by those who have direct business here. So there's a 'Lord Avery brooding on the heights' perception that will be tough to live down, even if all your actions are completely benign."
       Ellen started to raise an objection, but Mary plowed on. "It's about perception, my dear; and I'm about to tar myself wi' th' same brush. I'm 'Savage' Mary, remember; it even says so on our maps, f'goodness' sake. And I'm only a hair more ambulatory than your boy, Ellen, so some folks have barely or never laid eyes on me in all these years. Th' situation begs for a mystique, and people who feel themselves deprived by war and famine will easily latch on to that and embellish it to what they'll perceive as their best ends. And we have done little but play into that; the secretiveness about Ridge over the years, then we let word out there's power here, but keepin' it all to ourselves."
       Avery and Ellen both raised their hands, but Mary held out hers, palm up. "Not done! I know; we're doin' th' right things an' for th' right reasons, an' th' 'reactor' should be used sparingly to extend its useful life. But we have communicated this poorly, because we've all been anxious to put our heads down an' make hay while the sun shines. Kiddos, I think we have been guilty of a little hubris, and it may come home to roost. I have had a shakeup lately that gives me some insight; but I'll clam up now and let Mr. Avery think his way out of the consequences of our isolation." She grinned. "Out loud, of course."
       Avery signed again, looking to Ellen, who acquiesced by putting out her hand, palm down, toward Ro-eena. "Do you mean it's time for a proposal?" he asked.
       "I dunno, do you have one?" asked Mary, grinning.
       Emilio, who'd been in a brown study, came to life and signed. "I too have had my thoughts about this thing."
       Everyone turned to him. "Morale is low; where morale is low, those who would profit from disorder will seek to increase disorder. Let us hold a spring festival, and, though it is logistically inconvenient, let Ridge attend – in the valley, it may be."
       Almost everyone lit up at the suggestion. "And hold open house up here after we get back!" said Wilson, out of turn.
       "Is that an amendment?" asked Avery, signing hurriedly.
       "Umm, sure."
       "We'll have to consider it separately; there might be security considerations. Mary? You look unconvinced."
       "Oh, well. 'Bread and circuses.'"
       "I'm not sure I know the reference but I can guess its meaning. So, I sense Emilio has a proposal – " Avery looked to Ro-eena.
       She summed up. "Let us hold a spring festival, and let Ridge attend."
       "Discussion?" All eyes followed Avery's to Mary's.
       Mary waved her hand. "It's a start. Gotta check our pulse sometime."
       "Well, if there's consensus – Emilio, how shall we present this idea without a prior scheduled GM?"
       Emilio considered. "From us here, this should not come. I will see if Juanita will like to have a great idea."
       "Settled? Amendment?"
       "Lots of decisions have been made in council lately," offered Wilson. "And this isn't really even council. So, let's have this festival, and then an open house, and schedule a GM, get everything out into th' open and winnowed, then we can all buckle down an' try not to starve next winter."
       "I like it. Consensus on that?"
       Nods all round.
         "All right. Item four – armory."
  

:::

Billee sat in the shade of a boulder, and Karen leaned back against it. The upper valley of the Calapooia wound east into the hills at their feet. Out of sight to the right, both knew, the hole in the ground that had been the Lawsons' house was already healing, carpeted with new fireweed. Across the river, three buzzards sailed lazily in an updraft, and near them a hawk flew steadily off, pestered by a small blackbird, toward the distant hills.
       Karen inhaled the strange, to her, air of the heights. A sachet of lichens, mosses, and May flowers, vaporized by an unrelenting sun, hung round the summit.
       "Like it?" asked Billee.
       "Of course. It's not much like the Creek, is it?"
       "No; Mr. Avery says it's a different buy-home."
       "'Biome.' One word; means the plants and animals here have to meet different conditions, so they're a different mix."
       "Uh-huh. Whatever, it smells like my-home to me."
       "You've lived here for some time."
       "All my life. Don't remember any place else."
       "Your folks?"
       "What folks I have are the Ridge crew, and now you and all the Marys'. I was found way little –" she made a pinching gesture with her thumb and forefinger "– and brought to Ridge because one of the girls that was here then had lost a baby."
       "She adopted you?"
       "No, just fed me till I could get onto solid food. Then she moved back to Bledsoes."
       "Oh."
       "Yeah, 'Oh.' So, I've been underfoot ever since."
       "And you're –what – thirteen now, and a war vet, and marriageable age."
       "Huh! I don't know my age. Lotsa foundees here don't. Well, everybody is in the habit of thinking I'm still, I dunno, five or something. I was the only kid, except for Mo-reen, and they all acted like she was a grown-up from th' git-go."
       Billee stood up, leaning on her bow. "Mr. Avery, I think, he sees me as a – repeat? Umm, one thing for another, that's lost?"
       "Substitute?"
       "Yeah, substitute Mo-reen, but in a little-girl way. Mo-reen was a soldier, she got around, she got responsibility; I get to go peek over th' hill and run back, over an' over. I maybe shouldn't complain; it feeds me an' I like the hillside. But, mmh, I got stuff in me I never get to show."
       "Maybe I'd be, in your place, glad I never had to show it."
       Billee's eyes widened. "Oh, well, you've been around enough to last anybody."
       "Billee, get this. Almost none of it has been fun. I sense what you think you need; and trust me, once you get there, maybe it will taste just like yesterday's ashes. That's if you're lucky. Mo-reen wasn't."       

:::


"Item five. Karen ... ?" Avery raised his eyebrow at Dr. Mary.
       "That face you make; I assume it means I have th' floor," she said, sardonically. "Well, I just want to do a little confessing, s'all, and we can get back to Selk, and then Wilson. Good?"
       "Sure, Mary, what's to 'confess'?" asked Avery, both eyebrows lifted.
       "Well, that girl, I see her as prone to court risks. She runs out and gets her arm blown off when I'm looking for her, then I find her, then she goes home for a 'weekend', sends me a runner asking for an extension, I grant it and it runs to three weeks, and she comes back a widow, and starts barfing all over the lab, and I find out I've got to re-rig to keep her further away from the fumes, which is the very stuff that's her work."
       Elsa, Wilson, Ellen and Emilio all opened their mouths at once. Mary held up her hand, palm out.
       "I know, I'm just describing how it looked inside my wonky old head, 'K? So I blew up. Substance, if any, was she's a soldier and a scientist and how did getting knocked up fit into her mission. And she says ... hang on a minute ... l'never forget this ... " Mary's eyes watered up, a new sight to those present.
       "What?" asked Avery, softly.
       "... says, 'we soldier and science for the Creek, yes, ma'am?' and I said, 'well, yeah.' And she puts her hand on her bump and says, 'well, ma'am, this is the Creek.'"
       Wilson grinned. "That does sound like her."
       "So, anyway," Mary went on, "just so ya know, as I was never married and never had kids and was just starting to think I'd kinda adopted one ... well, I just hit panic mode." She placed her hands on the arms of her wheelchair and glared across the table.
       Avery rolled his eyes, then signed to Ro-eena.
       "I take it there was no AWOL."
       "Oh, we see-sawed back and forth and then Emilio here intervened for th' kid. She's in th' clear. Just sayin', we hit a rough patch an' it was my doin'." And I'm not about to tell you I spent decades trying to get pregnant myself.
       Ellen reached across and – a bit apprehensively – patted Mary's hand. "So, you're confessing you're about to become a grandmother."
       Mary almost crumpled – but held herself together. "Wise ass."
       "Umm, is this over?" asked Avery. "Okay, good. Item six."
       Everyone turned to Selk.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

33

Wolf was ready for spring.
       There had been little in the way of decent food and shelter through the winter months. He'd kept away from the towns on the principle that they had been the sort of places in which the Pilgrims had met people like him. Along the overgrown country roads were similar dangers. It had now been decades since the Undoing, but most travelers sought out such homes, barns and other structures as might contain some remnant of civilization's food web, and the more enterprising among them set up shop in such places to await the arrival of others and prey upon them.
       When the sparse snows had come, things had been simpler for him. Small animals could be tracked to their lairs and dug out. The habits of large carnivores could be read in tracks as well; Wolf, in his isolation, had become more adept in reading the signs, and begun to blend into this new world.
       Eventually he'd found a locked-up A-frame cabin with only one windowpane out, and noting there were no footprints in the vicinity of the doors or the window, had decided to risk a closer look. The window had divided lights with four large panes, one of which had been cleared of glass. The screen leaned against the wall nearby. Wolf had sniffed the dank air at the window, listened, and then, with great care, pried apart the remainder of the sash and climbed in.
       Here he'd found the usual: pine-paneled floors, walls and ceilings, rope rugs, a wood stove, prints of mountain scenes, Adirondack chairs, tables with "rustic" lamps. There seemed to be a theme: posters and statuettes of bears in anthropomorphic poses. Timeless, if a little cheesy. 
    A child had discovered the place, cleaned out the pantry over the course of a few weeks, and then gone upstairs to die in bed. Mice had made nests in the blankets all around the remains.
       Wolf had eaten a few blind, pink mouselets and moved on to inventory the place: a stove, refrigerator, cabinets full of chipped plates and bowls and such, drawers full of old-lady stuff, a trunkful of board games, knickknacks, travel books. The usual "vacation getaway" spot for the retired lower- middle class of days gone by. 
    A photo print in a frame had drawn his attention; it displayed a pre-teen boy, half smiling, half embarrassed, posing with a bent, gray-haired, and mildly stern elderly woman. "To G-Ma. Wally."
       Curious, Wolf had drawn the photo out from beneath the backing and turned it over; a date had been printed: 04-29. He'd carried it to the upstairs bunk and compared the structure of the skull reposing on the corruption-stained pillow with that of the child in the photo. Very likely this was Wally, gone to ground in the only safe-house he knew, twenty-two years or so ago.
       A padlocked shed, tucked away in undergrowth, had better rewarded Wolf's efforts. He had expected as much; such doors had resisted foragers of Wally's generation. A case of cans, labels rasped away by banana slugs and rusted but intact, had proved to be an energy-rich white variety of beans in red sauce. Other cans had held, among other things, the ubiquitous "pineapple juice," whatever that was. There were quite a lot of tools; perhaps this had been "G-Pa's" man-cave. In a corner stood a badly rusted .22 bolt-action rifle. On shelves he'd found some decrepit fishing tackle, some plastic toys, a small pair of binoculars, "made in China," and a toy bow, also of some sort of plastic, with a degraded string, along with several arrows with field points and red polyethylene fletching.
       Wolf had already suffered some deprivation due to his belated discovery that the AK, which had been such an asset when he'd had his small army, was a liability for a man alone. Yes, he could defend himself with it, and hunt, if need be, while his ammunition held out and remained reliable, but only at the risk of calling undue attention to his location. He'd now carried the AK for months without using it at all, and was concerned about its condition. So little oil of any kind these days! Yet he was loath to give it up. He'd fashioned a succession of knobbed throwing sticks and had become, by necessity, adept at waiting for small mammals to come within range. The bow represented a step up.
       Returning to the tackle box, Wolf had located a reel of fly line and stripped it to get the nylon backing, and had re-strung the bow. He also re-worked for himself a couple of wicked arrows using small frog gigs as the points; perhaps he could learn to use them during the spring fish runs. He had also taken a pair of needle-nosed pliers, the binoculars, some wire for snare-making, some safety pins, and some hooks and a roll of six-pound-test line that seemed not too brittle. Loading his backpack with as many of the cans as he could carry, and snatching a functional set of rain gear from a nail, he'd walked away over the melting snow into the gently falling rain, secure in the knowledge he could now reach Roseburg before summer.
         He'd stopped on the edge of the deeper woods and looked back, surprising himself with a salute for the long-departed Wally and his well-equipped grandparents.
       At night he'd unobtrusively buried himself in forest litter; nothing hungry had disturbed his sleep. Wolf had heard of a large hair-covered man-like creature that was supposed to have lived hereabouts in this fashion. With bitter humor he supposed he might be mistaken for it.

:::

A day came when the country Wolf traversed was more sparsely vegetated and less prone to incessant rain. Poison oak abounded, with many of last year's blushed leaves intact. There were numerous acorns beneath the twisted oaks, and he tried adding these to his diet along with the abundant small ground squirrels, but found the nuts bitter on the stomach. He managed to dispatch a small, very pregnant doe with the little bow, and camped out on its protein for days as the weather warmed. Over the next range of hills, Wolf knew, the houses, of which he'd seen few that were intact, would be more numerous, along with roads, strip malls, and the like, all wrecked, but familiar.
       These were his old stomping grounds, and he'd done much of the stomping.
       As soon as the venison turned sour, Wolf watered up at the nearby creek, which was running muddy but looked reasonably healthy, and climbed to the top of the range. Setting down his pack in a patch of manzanitas, he moved to the shade of a tall, isolated madrone, with young chinkapin trees all round its barkless feet, and settled down for a day's observation.
       Nothing was going on in the overgrown streets and back yards within his view. This was significant; the Umpqua river valley was narrow here; it had been a prime site for preying upon Pilgrim  groups. Perhaps the migration had finally petered out. Filled with overturned and burned out, or abandoned and stripped vehicles, the former urban spaces were still, except for the occasional movements of what were, he confirmed by the binoculars, mostly coyotes. These were working circuitous routes round a pride of lions that rested in the shade of several Ponderosa pines in a vacant lot. The lions, descended from those that had escaped a large private zoo nearby, were motionless except for a flicking of the ears at some spring-hatched flies. "Nothing to see here – move along." Wolf rested the glasses longest on the old KKUV building. If there were any radio broadcasting activity in this location, he could see no sign of it.
       So, where was everybody?
       He decided to relocate to the next hill west, across the old freeway. From there, he would be able to observe one of his former homes – the Douglas Patrol and Detention Facility.
       Returning to his backpack, Wolf saw movement, of something large and spotted, from the corner of his eye, and hesitated a moment. Familiar, but worrying. Too many big cats around here; they must still be living off the herds of several kinds of ungulates that had radiated out from Winston into these hills. He picked up the AK, popped the foam earplug from the end of the barrel, unwrapped the oiled cloth from the receiver, held open the bolt, put a thumb inside to reflect light off his thumbnail up the barrel, and looked in. Clean. His magazines, also wrapped in oiled cloth, were in the backpack. These he unwrapped, snapped a precious round out, and re-wrapped. He slipped the jacketed brass round into the chamber. One never knew. If the cat was tracking him, he might have to resort to a noisy means of defense.
       Walking quietly from stand to stand of madrone and oak, Wolf made his way down to, and across, the Highway of Death and the abandoned neighborhood of manufactured homes – half of them burned out – without incident. Plunging into the shade of the Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines on the other side, he came to a chain-link fence, swung himself easily over it, and began his ascent. He took his time and stayed hydrated; it was never a good idea to make much racket, and it was getting hot out for the time of year. He checked behind himself from time to time, sitting down in the brush and waiting, as if he were still-hunting, for any sign of movement. A few black-and-white birds puttered about on tree trunks, looking for bugs in the bark.
       It was nearly sunset when Wolf approached the peak of the ridge. Here he expected to find an outcrop of stone, through a crack in which he would worm himself into position to observe the old facility. But the outcrop didn't look right. Glassing it with the binoculars, he realized it had been built up cleverly, with native stone, into a lookout.
       Occupied, too. Not that he could see anything conclusive, but he got "that feeling" when looking in that direction.
       So. Now we're onto something.
       No telling what, though.
       What to do? There was no guarantee that they were the "Rogue Valley Volunteers" or associated with Magee in any way; and no guarantee that if they were, they would welcome his appearance. If he bypassed the lookout, they would be in his rear, and if he ran in into trouble ahead, could find this way blocked against his retreat. It was unlikely they had a signal system that worked at night, other than courier. If he supplanted them in the lookout, on the morrow he could examine the old prison site below at his leisure. Then, if it seemed appropriate to withdraw, who could know that it had been he that had been here?
        Besides, he was low on protein.
       Backing painstakingly away through the brush, Wolf settled down to a wait, comfortably out of sight, dressing himself warmly from the backpack with a black wool sweater and matching watch cap. He ate the last can of the "G-Ma" beans, drank water, blackened his face and hands with lampblack from a bean can under which he'd burnt a tallow candle weeks earlier, and sharpened his knife on a fine gritstone – slowly, so as to limit the noise of the blade rasping against the stone.
       Well past midnight, and also past quarter-moonset, Wolf sequestered his pack and rifle under a projecting ledge, deployed his war quiver and sheath – arrows on his left thigh, knife on his right – and approached the summit again, small bow in hand.
       Softly, softly.
       A late spring front had moved in, in the evening, and the tiny raindrops on the new foliage helped mask his movements. Wolf's nose told him that someone had recently urinated by the entrance to the grotto. Easing round the doorway, he was able to peer into the darkness ahead, and see that two men were sitting at a stone table. He could discern no weapons.
       Based on the size of the space, there would be two more, perhaps – sleeping. Watch on, watch off.
       One arrow, a sharpened field point, was already nocked to his string. Wolf drew, aimed for center mass on the first shadow, and released.
       Neither of the sitters moved. Something about the thump of the arrow – as of its having been fired into straw – was his first clue that something was wrong. Whoa, time to go! Wolf habitually nocked another arrow as he turned to flee the now-obvious trap.     
    Someone stood up in the darkness at the edge of the woods below.
       "Freeze! Stay where you are!" shouted a voice. Wolf released his second arrow into the shadow, which emitted a groan and fell over backwards. No bag of straw, that one! He nocked a third arrow as he ran.
       "Fire!" the same voice, a familiar one, shouted. As Wolf loped toward the relative safety of the dark line of Douglas fir trees, an ear-splitting report – shotgun! – went off nearby, and at the same moment something heavy struck him in the back, staggering him and causing him to drop the bow. Two shadows rose up before him, as if reaching for his arms, and he drew his knife, blade down and edge forward, and stepped in toward them both, sweeping for jugular veins from within their reach.
       There were screams – and then another explosion.
       Wolf saw a burst of light illuminating the trees with his silhouette, then, vaguely aware that he'd been struck on the back of the head, observed the dark and unforgiving stones rushing up to meet him.

:::

"My god, Wolf, what was that all about?" The familiar voice again.
       "Mmnh?" Wolf was having trouble getting his bearings. And he shouldn't be replying, in any case – should be feigning continued unconsciousness, gathering data on his surroundings – but the pain in his head kept him from thinking clearly. If he'd been shot at point-blank range from a shotgun, why was he thinking at all?
       Opening his eyes in darkness, Wolf flexed a bit and found that he was lying on his back, on stone or cement, with his hands tied uncomfortably beneath him – wire? – and his clothes were gone. All he was wearing was the narrow-gauge wiring on his wrists, and some kind of shackle on one ankle.
       Nice. Might as well converse.
       "Mullins?"
       "Well, yeah, that's me. Prisoner number three-one-eight-one-seven. And you're Wolf, three-three-four- –"
       "– -oh-four-seven. So that's old news. So what's going on here?"
       "I asked you first. We thought we were just catching an interloper. Wolf, ya got me in trouble, I'm down three good men."
       "Well, sorry about that. They come after me, I go after them."
       "But, Wolf, you come sneakin' like that, what are we gonna do? So ... what was that all about?"
       "I got info that Magee was callin' us in."
       "Uh, huh, and so you shoot your way into the listening post?"
       "Didn't know it was yours."
       "Did ya ask?"
       "Mullins, am I where I think I am?"
       "As in home sweet home? Yeah, the Hole itself, block A."
       "So, how come I'm alive?"
       "Mmh? Oh, okay, I can answer that too. Bean-bag gun." Pause. "So where ya been for two whole years?"
       "Eatin' my way up towards Port Land."
       Pause. "Got a reason why your little army ain't with you?"
       "Umm, sure. Things is a bit rougher out there than maybe I thought."
       "Well, tell ya what, Wolf, I take ya report, if it's good stuff, maybe I'm not in so much trouble for taking casualties."
       "I hear ya, Mullins, but some things, 'need to know basis.'"
       "Shit. Y'probably just killed us both." Longer pause.
       Ah, there are listeners. Figures.
       The thing to do, then, would be to be open about – some things. Up to a point.
       Mullins shifted around on the floor. From the sound of it, he was naked and shackled, himself. "Umm, 'kay, back to th' chit-chat. You crossed the freeway in daylight, right in front of us. What brought that on?"
       "Th' big cats. They look nocturnal."
       "Yeah, they are; that's why we encourage 'em." Pause. "Wolf, I gotta tell ya, I dunno if Magee's even wanta see ya. Y'come in here 'n try to off people, no questions asked, it's like y'want to be disloyal. Why no front door?"
       "Mullins. Lissen at y'self. I'm not even sure Magee's still around, an' am I gonna go up th' Hole road an' walk up to th' gate? What if th' effin' Yoo Ess Army was back? You remember what it was like bein' their prisoner here; and for all I know, y'are again, an' me with ya. I come over th' hill to scope out th' Hole, an' that outpost was in my way. I figgered to clean it out an' do my own effin' listenin'. By th' way, nice job on th' piss by th' doorway."
       "Huh! You taught me that one." Pause. "Wolf, gimme somethin' ta live on, here. Where's yer men?"
       "''K, well, I guess I'm goin' nowhere wi' not tellin' ya. We was doin' all right on our own, workin' our way up the north-running river, when we run into a buncha effin' Pilgrims 'at c'd defend 'emselves. Got boxed in and wiped. My own fault, too. Was in a spot where I couldn't get to my men an' found a hole in th' action and walked outta there. Been comin' this way ever since."
       "'Wolf the Lucky.' But, Pilgrims? That stayed put?"
       "Ahh, I dunno, like th' Eastsiders, dressed peculiar, organized, not runnin' north."
       "How c'd they do that? Build a fort, live off other Pilgrims? We're about out of Pilgrims, y'know."
       "Yeah, I noticed. Well, yeah, Mullins, I think they did do that in a way. Some folks, I'm thinkin' military deserters, sorta backed into a canyon, an' recruited heavy while they could. So, yeah, sorta fortified. Armed, too."
       "Wolf, that don't sound quite right; if there were enough of them in one place to take out your army, what the hell have they been eatin'?"
       Wolf rolled over as far as the leg iron would let him. He faced in the direction of Mullins' voice and rested the side of his still-aching head on the cold floor. "Well, I'll tell ya. Oats. Wheat. Potatoes. Beans. Mutton. Beef. Some stuff I've eaten, I never even heard of."
       "Dubya-tee-eff, Wolf, farmers?"
       "Farmers, Mullins. As Magee'd say: 'a land of milk and honey.'"


Saturday, October 11, 2014

32

Josep walked point.

    Marleena, who'd been tracking the new wolf pack, had smelled a burn. So early in the year, it could not be a forest fire. A tendril of spring breeze, with just a hint of someone's breakfast smoke, had curled itself round a hill, then wreathed across the unoccupied valley to the south, and lapped at the boundary ridge. So it had to be investigated.
Josep took four men with him, all that their tribe could spare, each laden with enough pemmican to get through several days. If it turned out to be nothing, they could look for venison on the way back. Fall venison was much preferred, but no one at Roundhouse would turn down venison at any time. Life had been hard.
    Josep, slim and golden-haired with a suggestion of golden beard, still had a bounce in his step and cockiness in his eye after the winter, which came partly from his youth and his upbringing, and partly from his habit of finding and eating green things even in the dark of the year. If he felt "scurved" and nothing else was available, he would ask Marleena to make up some fir-needle tea for him – which she would do, scolding and fussing, saying that no good could come of drinking from a tree anyone could smell was poisonous.
    As the sun reached down through the gray murk, with another moon of winter to go, the people of Roundhouse had begun to shake loose the cold and to speak with a little more cheer – another winter survived, the Lord be praised. And as they padded along the animal trails across the hills, the men limbered up in spite of themselves. With so much new foliage curling from the buds, and robins and other spring birds already at hand, lilting in the sprouting branches, whose was the heart so sodden with rain that he would not respond?
    But no one whistled. Danger always lurked around the bends in this world.
    The chief danger was Man; all at the Roundhouse knew that. Had they not come together from disparate remnants of pilgrim bands that had been preyed upon and harried the length of the Highway of Death? And each group that had come in had given up tales of horrors – corroborated by several attacks that had reduced their numbers. The few firearms had gone silent, one by one, and the new tribe had perforce leaned to make and use bows and other tools of distant memory. But it had been almost twenty years now; a way of life had coalesced and there had been no new attack for almost a decade. Yet memory of loss and suffering is long. The few children were still told tales of an evil people that had gnawed their way upriver from Port Land and destroyed the outlying farms.
    A huge barn, built of cement on a circular pattern, with a metal roof, had been the tribe's salvation. The Port Landers were ill provisioned and had spent themselves and their ammunition against the thick round wall. This blessed fort, with the hole knocked in the center of the roof for the smoke from the Fire, had become home, as there was room in it for all the valley's survivors of that war. Some there were, now, who hunted, fished, farmed, and patrolled, and had never known a home besides the Roundhouse. One of those, even now, the youngest of their party, trailed in Josep's wake.
    Ranging ahead of Josep, loping along on long legs and circling back from time to time to report her satisfaction with the journey's offerings, a glorious creature served as the party's "point man." In former times she might have been identified as half Irish Wolfhound and half Golden Retriever. With her nose for business she increased the party's efficiency a thousandfold. Named Krall, for the way she had ingratiated herself, dragging along on her belly from child to child in the Roundhouse, tail thumping, she was everyone's favorite scout.
    A brief reconnaissance of the South Valley, which was known ground, showed that no one had taken up residence in the ruined and collapsed houses and barns, or the many fields which had grown up into tangled woods of fir, ash, and maple. Someone had gone through all the buildings long ago, and systematically emptied them out. Leery of ever meeting these people, who must surely have been numerous, the Roundhouse tribe had kept their visits to the place minimal. The vague hope faded that perhaps a lone traveler or small band had made the reported smoke. A decision must be made.
    Josep called a parley and the men gathered together to speak quietly among themselves in a deep thicket of hawthorns, shrouded in old-man-vine. All around them, swallowtail butterflies flitted – it was too early for swallowtails, but that was the way with everything – each year, insects, plants, and all kinds of birds and animals did something sooner than anyone remembered seeing it done. It was as if the great flat world were tilting itself more and more toward the sun, and summer would someday last all year.
    Krall curled in and out among them, fretting – she had crossed the spoor of the wolves. These were not counted a danger. Josep strung his bow, nonetheless, and pulled his fingerless deerskin glove onto his right hand. The others, silently observant, did the same.
    "I am for going to the top of the next hill, for once," asserted their young leader. "All these years we have not looked there. Our ignorance of the place springs from a just caution, but it is as dangerous as knowledge, and over time, becomes the more dangerous of the two."
    "It is so," said the next man, Bolo. A bigger, older, and not unwise handyman, dark brown, with a long brown beard streaked with red and a bush of dark brown hair on his head, with gray at the temples, Bolo might in earlier times have been labeled autistic and left to subsist in some den on food stamps and old movies. But at Roundhouse he had a life, and knew, from things his parents had said to each other, his good fortune. Always he agreed with the younger Josep, but, as Josep was a far-seeing youth, this seldom led Bolo into error.
    The others were less enthused, but no game had crossed their path to distract them from the present mission, and among the men, more so than among the women of the tribe, there remained something of a thirst to see the world. They agreed to push on.
    Late in the day, crossing amuddy opening among the fir trees that was populated with small, gnarly willows, the party came upon the crest of the ridge, among rhododendrons and bear grass. The hill was wooded on the south as well as the north and offered little in the way of a view. But, as here the best human nose among them did detect the hint of smoke that had alerted Marleena, Josep elected to climb an open-grown fir – it had retained its lower branches and could serve as a ladder. Propping his bow against it, he vanished into the tree's canopy, while Krall whined her annoyance at Josep's disappearance until shushed by Bolo.
    The sun had made its way within two hands of the horizon when Josep, sweating, scratched, and spattered with resin and flakes of bark, descended among them.
    What had he seen, they all wished to know.
    Wondrous things.
    The whole valley to the south of them appeared inhabited. There were farms! Perhaps four times as many as the Roundhouse people had once had; maybe more. The fields were small, as at Roundhouse, but surrounded by cultivated hedges; they radiated from a cart track that followed a small river. Furthermore, in most of the fields there were small windmills! – he had watched, amazed, their white sails flitting in the evening breeze. Far to the left there was a long, low building, with activity around it, and traffic of some sort – could it be oxen?! – between there and an obscure place, already in evening shadow, on the mountain to the south. The mountain was much bigger than the one on which they stood, and was bare at its summit. Smoke trailed east from at least ten valley chimneys into the high hills; some spring eddy must have taken it out of its normal way, betraying, for once, the complacent anonymity of the place.
    "With so much farming, it may be these are a friendly people," Josep observed. "Perhaps we should sleep here, and try to speak to someone in the morning."
    But to such an abrupt and momentous decision none of the others, save Bolo, could assent. This matter must be brought to the Fire at Roundhouse. Then, if it was the will of the tribe, a return journey might be made, with an offer of parley. Josep could see the wisdom of this view, and easily assented. But in some corner of his heart, his patience was thin. So much might be learned! Trade might even now be initiated; and the high tide of poverty at Roundhouse might begin to recede at last.
As one, they melted away into the shadows.

:::

Tomma and Vernie each seized one end of the long handles of the log tongs.
    Horses and oxen were needed elsewhere, as the spring weather had come early and stayed long. The gardens were not plowed, but planted from hothouse starts through a yearlong mulch of straw, to conserve water. Such methods were not practical at field scale, and those in charge of barley, oats and wheat favored the traditional moldboard plow, harrow, and manure cart. If weather favored the field hands, as it did this year, the woods hands must supply their own labor unaided.
    The tongs, like a pair of ice tongs, consisted of two long hooked bars of iron, joined together like a pair of scissors, suspended from a wooden rod that extended three feet on each side. Any fir tree from the lower slopes of Maggie's Hill, less than a foot in diameter, might be fair game. It would be cut down with a pair of axes and limbed, then de-barked with an iron "spud," a kind of large chisel on a long handle like that of a hoe, so that the log would slide easily. Two loggers would choose and cut a tree together, then one would limb while the other rested, and the other would spud while the first rested, and then, with the tongs, they would skid the tree down to one of the farms, to be added to a pile near the sawbuck.
In this way were loggers warmed out of doors in all weather, and the farmers and families warmed in the kitchens.
Larger trees were left until a team of oxen could be assigned to the task. New land for farming, should enough labor be found to do it, was added to the Creek's inventory in this way.
    "Left! Go left, dang it!" said Vernie in exasperation.
    "I am!" replied Tomma. "Just do it; I'll stay with you."
    "I can never tell if you're going to, that's the trouble."
    "S'cuz I'm taller and don't take as many steps."
    "Well, bully for you. Oka-a-y, we're going through these huckleberries here, then slip over the ash log and down to the hedge."
    "I'm there; step high, Vernie, there's trailing blackberry all through here."
    "Save your breath."
    "Let's sit down and I'll catch my breath."
    They dropped the tongs and sat in the sunshine. Below them, folks at Maggie's were hitching the big Belgian to a new tooth harrow; far to the right, new smoke rose from the kitchen at New Ames', formerly known as Savage Mary's.
    "Mrs. A. and Mrs. M. have started dinner," noted Vernie. "Last year's oatmeal and some dandelions, I bet."
    "Well, that would be my fault; I let all those trout get out of the trap."
    "Things happen, sweetie."
    "Y'think Karen's gonna make it to th' table?"
    "Dunno, busy, busy gal these days."
    "Yah, don't even know half of what she's – whoa!" Tomma was staring into the slash and brush uphill.
    Vernie was quick on the uptake. A bear, or wolves, or coyotes, or even a cougar would not have provoked such stillness in Tomma's manner. "Arm?" Vernie asked.
    "Yes. Now." Leaving the tongs where they lay, both ran sidehill to where their bows and quivers leaned against a tree, and made cover behind an "ox-sized" log before slipping into their quivers, which also bore their short swords. Vernie watched as Tomma lay down and braced himself to string his bow, then Tomma nocked and watched while Vernie followed suit.
    Vernie came up nocked and ready. There had not been time to don armguards; this was an issue for Vernie, who had a lot of scar tissue on his bow forearm and stood to rip flesh if it came to loosing an arrow. So it goes, he thought. "Whatcha got?"
    "No idea, but it sounded to me like a two-legs on the sneak."
    They stared uphill. For some time, there was nothing; then a crow squawked peculiarly; it was seeing something it neither expected nor liked. Both men drew their fletching back to their cheeks and aimed uphill.
A very large dog, wearing a leather collar, bounded up onto a log, looked at them briefly, gave two sweeps of its tail, and disappeared.
   "What the –" breathed Vernie.
    "Gee, a dog. Cheery-looking and belongs to somebody."
    "Tomma, why is it always you and me that have these alien encounters?"
    "It's not; remember Mo-reen. Keep sharp."
    They waited. The crow continued with its conniption fit. After a long interval, a young man with long yellow hair, dressed in buckskin like Maggie, slowly and deliberately walked to a stump, climbed it, and stood up in full view, both hands in the air, palms out.
    "Hiya."
    "I'll be damned. I guess that means 'parley'," said Tomma.
    "Now what?" asked Vernie.
    "Now you watch the brush really, really good, and if
someone stands up to shoot, put your arrow right through him, is what."
    "You gonna break cover?"
    "He did. That's brave and it asks for trust; if they get me they must know you might get away and raise the Creek on 'em. To prevent that, they would have had to shoot us while we were sitting ducks." Tomma laid aside his bow and shucked his quiver.
    "Ah-h-h-h, I hate this," said Vernie. "Let's hope it's better'n that Lawson fellow."
    "Sharp eye, that's all. Here goes." Tomma stood up and put out both palms. "Hey," he called out.
    The blond youth grinned relief. Either that or he was a superb actor. "Sir, I must admit your friend there really, really scares me, " he shouted. "He looks like he knows what he is doing. I, uh, I am shaking like a leaf."
    Tomma shouted back. "Well, so am I; I don't know how many of you there are but I can feel eyes. I'm guessing I'm covered by some weapons too."
    "Well, everyone must do what they must do. I do not mind telling you I have not done this before. We are a people, as you are, and we have had talks about how to meet you."
    "Umm, well, for starters, don't rush things. We've been through a lot of hell lately and we're a trigger-happy bunch. And, 'course, we don't know but what you've got diseases we don't have, and vice versa."
    "Yes, that makes sense. Suggestions?"
    Without taking eyes off the woods, Vernie whispered. "Tomma, if they're on the level, see if they'll send one rep for quarantine."
    "Sounds good." Tomma raised his voice. "Ahh, so, we do have a procedure in place, and it has worked for us before. Ya got a name?"
     "You may call me Josep."
    "'K, well, I'm Tomma. So, let's say well met, provisionally; are you prepared to come, alone, and stay in isolation in our clinic for two weeks?"
    "Clinic! Is this a city? But I should not pry. So, quarantine. You are very wise. Would I be able to talk with anyone?"
    "Yes, the doctors and maybe a few specialists at first. Then we could see 'bout getting you back home with greetings and who knows, maybe some proposals."
    "May I have a few moments, please?"
    "Consultation, eh?"
    The young man grinned engagingly. "It is wise to travel in company. I will be right back." He hopped down from the stump and disappeared.
    Tomma immediately realized his unilateral exposure and did the same, gasping for breath. "Jeeah, this is scary stuff. Like painting myself with a target and subbing for the archery butts."
    "Tomma, I think there are at least three, with the dog."
    "And a 'people,' somewhere, if they're being straight with us. Presumably not on Decker Creek; we come up snake eyes every time we look there."
    "Next valley over, then; we should have gone to see."
    "Well, can't do everything, y'know. And you're right, somehow it's always you and me, and if we had blundered into dogs who knows how it might have turned out?"
    "He's back."
    Tomma checked; the palms-out stance had been resumed. He clambered up and did the same.
    The stranger called out. "How about an exchange? One to come to our place and one to come to yours?"
    Tomma felt there was an answer to this but felt woolly-headed.
    Vernie saw the difficulty and prompted him. "Tell him we'll set a date; full moon or something, for a second go-round. That we have to consult, too, 'cuz the two of us don't have the authority for an official decision."
    Tomma made the suggestion, and it was accepted with surprising speed.
    "We like it," said the stranger. "If your people agree to meet and exchange visitors, how about we use the little clearing by the steel barn in the valley to the north of here? In, say, six days?"
    Full moon. "I can't guarantee it, here and now, but I know of no reason why not. Assuming it happens, say three people from each side meet, exchange one? We'll have to quarantine our crew when they come back with you; and you might want to do the same."
    A short delay. Then: "This is good. We will be there. Going now; please do not follow."
    "Follow a crew that's got a watchdog? Trust me; nobody's coming up that hill."
    The blond guy laughed a hearty laugh and jumped down from the stump. Vernie caught a glimpse of a large black man, or perhaps mulatto like himself. And then the woods were quiet.
    "Huh." Vernie kept his stance and his lookout, but relaxed his arrow arm a little. "I think that was on the level."
    "That or they are damned good actors. Think I gave away too much?"
    "Well ... that was properly cagey, but they do probably know now that the Creek has no dogs."
    "Damn. Well, didya see that guy that accidentally showed himself?"
    "Yes. Tomma, to me his presence is reassuring; surely these people are not Kluxers."
    "That would be nice; anyway, they're sure not skinheads." Tomma re-armed himself. "So let's wait till the crows calm down; they're our watchdogs. Then one of us can stash the tools under a cedar and we'll hie us home to supper and see about getting word to Hall of this thing."
    Vernie gripped Tomma's shoulder. "Let's do that; I was ready for a short day and this is as good an excuse as any I've seen – in a long time."

:::

Karen of Ridge hiked down the mountain's road in her cedar-bark rain cape. Not that it was raining at the moment, but it might at any time, and there was still a bit of winter's chill in the air. She felt her sword belt pulling around to the left as she walked, and adjusted it with her hand. The cape was twisting as well. This came, she knew, of having a lopsided body. Perhaps she should learn to walk without swinging her hand.
    As she came round one of the hairpin turns in the cart track, she met an ox team huffing up to Ridge. It was led by Yamaguchi, a particular friend. She stepped out of the way, and Guchi led the team past, then stopped the cart beside her.
     "Hey, you," he said. He patted one of the animals on the head, and sat down, leaning against the bole of a bent fir tree.
    "Hey, yourself. How many loads are left?" Karen flexed her knees, but didn't sit; she still felt awkward getting back up, and preferred keeping things simple.
    "It's going to be about six, maybe seven. Savage Mary had a lot of stuff down there."
    "So, we're almost done."
    "Yah-yah. Your family is all moved in now, by the way. The rest of this stuff will be from outbuildings."
    "So I heard."
    "They've kept you up here this whole time; what do you do all day?"
    "Well, a lot of it is reading and recitation; I'm studying chemistry and metallurgy."
    "Has Old Mary got special plans for you, then?"
    "Not this year; we have power for manufacturing, for the time being, so we're going to see if we can make some things we might need, 'down the road.'"
    "Uh-huh, I hear what you're not saying. Some of that is war stuff. Why do you all think that guy's coming back?"
    "Well, I'm the only one who saw him go. Except maybe Mr. Angle."
    "And?"
    "He didn't walk like a loser."
    "Woo, so, readiness regime."
    "'Everyone always prepares for the last war.' We're trying to learn new stuff and be ready for the next one."


:::

It was almost dark when Karen reached New Ames. She'd seen the porch before, of course, several times, but she'd never gone up the walk. There was no railing for the wooden steps, so she took them mindfully, and let herself in by the whitewashed front door.
    "Home? Ho, ho house?"
    "Karen? That is really you?" She heard Juanita's voice from down the hall, kitchen-way. "Come straight back; I am up to here in flour."
    Karen hung up her wide-brimmed rain hat and pulled the thong of her cape. She slipped the buckle of her belt as well, and found a spare nail in the wall on which to hang her belongings. Walking down the dim hallway, she found an open door on the right, and looked in. Quick, small Juanita, as absorbed in kitchen things as ever, stood by a work counter with her hair in a bun and a large bowl in front of her, much as Karen imagined she would find her. The bowl was rotating as Juanita stirred.
    Karen stood beside her. "Hold that for you?"
    For a split second, Juanita seemed hesitant; their eyes met. Karen put into her own eyes an expression that said: I will not be treated as an invalid.
Juanita's eyes replied, no, indeed. "Please, yes. Around to the back. And as I stir with this hand, I tip in a bowlful of flour, so! And the dough is stiffening, so I put both hands to the soup spoon, so. And now it is like old times."
    "Barley?"
    They both laughed.
    "Yes, but Mr. Avery has sent down extra wheat this year, and so in spite of the troubles, we feed everyone easily. Now hand to me the big jar with the veg flakes, and we will put some in – "
    "Turnip greens and kale?"
    "Also beet greens, a little chard, dandelion, cabbage. To keep sickness from the door." Juanita twisted off the lid, poured a half cup of the dehydrated, crumbled foliage into her hand, dumped most of it in, and returned the rest to the jar.
    "So now, it is a little thicker, and the dough cleans the sides of the bowl, and we set aside the spoon. What do you do?"
    "I cover this bowl, and set it out back to stay cool overnight, so as not to rise too quickly, and bake tomorrow."
    "It is so! Our Karen forgets nothing. So do that, please, and come back and we will set table for – eight, I think; make that nine, as there is a guest – bowls! Spoons! Soup, and we can dip in it last week's bread. Yah?"
    Karen pulled the big bowl to her, covered it with its lid, gripped it against her ribs with her hand, and moved to the back door. For a moment she puzzled over the doorknob, then leaned the bowl against the door, turned and pulled the knob shuffling backwards, put her foot in the gap, returned her hand to the bowl, kicked the door open, and carried her burden to the cooling shelf in the back mudroom. Here was yet another puzzle, for the shelf was higher than the one at Ames, but she solved that by discovering a small stepladder .By ascending the ladder and crouching against the ceiling a bit, Karen was able to shove the bowl into place one-handed.
     Where there is a will ...it was slow, it was more work, but all things would have to be done so.
    When she returned, she found dishes and utensils for nine on the counter, and Juanita by the pump, cleaning her arms and hands in a washbowl. Karen set the kitchen table, which was an old one with leafs at the ends, which she puzzled over for a moment, then pulled them out to make room for everyone.
    "See," said Juanita, "you are always at home everywhere! I am still not used to this place; I liked our old farm and kitchen the best, yah? Warm in winter and cool in summer."
    "Yes, the sunken kitchen was the best way. Perhaps we could take up this floor and rebuild more to our liking?"
    "When the farming is caught up, maybe, you think? But when, ever, is farming caught up?"
    Mrs. Ames put her head around the door. "Oh, my, who have we here?"
    Karen felt a shock; Mrs. Ames had visibly aged in the last two moons. "Umm, me."
    "'Umm, me,' she says. "Honey, may I hug you?"
    Hugging was never Karen's strong suit; but she had made an exception for Mrs. Ames almost from the day she'd met her. The large woman came in, with a bit of a wobble in her step, and swept Karen into one long, farm-red arm, handing a basket to Juanita with the other.
    "Here's y'dandelions, 'n some garlic greens, is there time to steam that for dinner?"
    "There is a sunchoke soup, today; I will cut them up small and add them to it and they will wilt in time for everyone to come in, I think, and enjoy."
    "Thank you, dear; I have to sit down! Whew! Karen, girl, stop looking like you need something to do and sit and let me just look at you a bit!"
    "Yes, ma'am."
    "'Yes, ma'am.' That's all I ever heard from you at Ames, but now you're th' biggie, and th' guest of honor, too. How do ya like our new digs?"
    "I'm sure there is more space here than before."
    "They must be teachin' ya politics. It's not as comfy; colder in th' cold, so it'll be hotter in th' hot, I'm thinkin'. Cows wouldn't care for th' pasturage as much, neither."
    "Wouldn't?"
    "Well, Florence up and died on us; th'mastitis whipped us. And th' rest had found homes – y'know; spread th' joy. I'm too tired these days t'do much of that stuff any more anyhow." Mrs. Ames propped her elbow on the table, almost knocking over an empty glass. Juanita brought over a pitcher of water, and moved the glass away unobtrusively. "So – whatcha been doing?"
    "Me? Math, chemistry, metals. We're re-learning how to analyze materials – spectroscopy."
    "Huh? Girl, that's a ten-Amero word if I ever heard one!"
    "Oh – well, Dr. Savage took a prism from a smashed pair of binoculars and mounted it on a frame. I burn known things over a spark gap, observe the rainbow on the wall, and list its "lines" – we're going to try to duplicate some compounds from before the Undoing. It's not quality spectroscopy but we're learning."
    "Ya, well, ya got me, honey. Nita, ya got everything under control?"
    "Yes, Mrs. Ames, the soup is ready and I will ring the bell." Juanita hung up her apron and stepped out the back.
    "Thank you, honey." Mrs. Ames returned her attention to Karen. "They all think I'm on my way out, for cryin' out loud, but I at least offer to pull my own weight. C'n do it, too, if I don't rush it." She looked down at her hand-sewn moccasins. "'It's these fool things; can't always tell where I'm puttin' my feet, in 'em."
    The bell, which was the old iron pipe from Ames, sang under the poll of the hand axe. David Molinero, looking bigger and older than Karen remembered, came in through the door with a load of firewood. He nodded to Karen, who nodded back. It wouldn't do to fuss over the boys, even if Karen were the fussing kind. They were at that age, sensitive to adult scrutiny. And what about me? Have I never left "that age?"
    Juanita, who'd held the door open for him, came in briskly, closing it behind her. "There will be no need to feed the fire; we are done for the day, I think. Drop those in the woodbox and wash up, yah?"
    He did so, morosely.
    Footsteps, with the scraping noises that accompany mud season, began to resound from the mudroom.
    Errol came in, followed by Emilio, Raoul, and Vernie. They greeted Karen, each in his own way, washed their hands and faces and came to the table. A brief offering of the bland, but sufficient, meal was made to Jeeah by Mrs. Ames, at the head of the table.
    "So, where's Tomma?" asked Mrs. Ames, ladling out soup with a shaking hand. Vernie kept his bowl in motion beneath the ladle, so that none would spill.
    "Well, we had an adventure."
    "He's not hurt?" Juanita paused by the stove, where she was fetching barley cakes from the warming shelf.
    "No, he's at Hall, on the phone to Mr. Avery. We've been debriefing all afternoon. We met some people."
    Karen stopped, spoon halfway to her mouth. "So, not Creekers?"
    "No, apparently the valley north of Decker Creek has a group, not so different from us. We only met a patrol, but they say they are about fifty, I think."
    "Please. Tell it from the beginning," requested Emilio.
    "Umm, maybe between bites?" Vernie picked up a cake and held it in the steam from his bowl.
    "That is to be expected; who isn't hungry?" asked Emilio. "The days are longer and we are feeling it in our bones. This farm was somewhat neglected."
    "Okay, and it's maybe the fifth time I've told this today."
    Vernie recounted the encounter with the party from Roundhouse, with interruptions, over the course of the meal. Karen could see that everyone had their own reaction, mostly apprehensive, to the story. What would it mean to make extended contact with a group who had obviously developed a parallel culture, alike but different? Did they have anything, besides potentially dogs, to offer? What about diseases? Points of conflict in belief?
    "You're looking thoughtful." Errol was watching Karen, as the others were getting up from table and moving toward the front room.
    "Lots to think about. Clashing religions, maybe." She rose and picked up his bowl and hers.
    "I'll help clear." Errol began reaching for bowls and utensils as well. "Tell me your own views – I've never heard you make an offering to Jeeah."
    "I think I get what that's about – didn't Elsa Chaney start it? Something about being grateful to the Earth."
    "So it is, but it's growing into a real religion, somehow."
    "But you don't seen over-enthused."
    "Well, I like straight-grained ash for some jobs, curly maple for others. I'm guessing you're a bit like me."
    Karen lowered the bowls into the warm water in the sink, which was mildly foamy from the lye-soap that had been shaved into it. "Maybe so. I was brought up on books and magazines and discussion. One of my father's regular sayings was that one should not seek additional explanations."
    "Occam."
    "You know about him! Well, okay. So I was reading in a magazine about birds."
    "Birds?"
    There was a – a photograph of an albatross chick that had been – raped by an adult male that couldn't find a mate in the colony. And so its neck was bleeding. And the smaller birds, mockingbirds with special beaks, came and pecked at the wound to keep it bleeding, so they could have blood to drink. They had in fact evolved to do this – to live on the blood of raped chicks."
    "An arid island, I presume."
    "Yes! An arid island. Gaia – Jeeah – doesn't provide. The blood provides. What's there is what's there, and what isn't, isn't in it. It's sufficient explanation."
    "Gotcha." Errol, privately pained by Karen's struggles with the washing up, edged across and took over the bowls. Karen seemed preoccupied enough that he was sure he could get away with it.
    "So," she began, looking over her shoulder toward the front room. "Mm, what's with Mrs. Ames?"
    "Parkinson's. Marcee – she's been studying up – told us."
    "Oh."
    Juanita came in from the front room and strode over to the wood stove. She held her hand palm down over the soup, nodded her head in satisfaction, and looked over to them. "Karen, this has cooled enough for our other guest, perhaps you would take him his dinner?"
    "Oh! Was that what the ninth bowl was about?"
    "Yes; he's not well; but insisted on visiting with us so as to see you when you arrived."
    Errol added, unsmilingly, "Upstairs in bed, door at the end. I've got it covered here."
    Karen took the half-filled bowl, with a spoon, from Mrs. Molinero. Why all the solemnity? Well, she would go and see.
A gesture from Errol found her the door to the staircase, and she made her way up toward such light as the landing afforded. Here there was an unadorned hallway, with assorted sacks piled along the walls. These no doubt contained goods from Ames which had not yet found homes. Karen tapped at the last door, which was cracked open, with her foot, then kneed the door open and looked in.
    The room was half-filled with boxes, barrels and sacks. Among them, Karen saw her yew bow and Aleesha's compound bow. In the other half, Allyn lay in a straw tick bed that had been made up on the floor. Outside, the last light was fading from a gray day over Maggie's Hill.

Allyn looked up from his pillow. "Well, hey. I wondered, was I going to be fed." He smiled.
    Karen was struck by two things: one, that she had always liked that smile, for its gentleness. The other was that there was a pervading "sourness" in the air. It reminded her forcibly of the war. "Of course you are. Juanita didn't want to burn your lips, I guess."
    "K, well, c'n you help me sit up? There's an extra pillow."
    Karen knelt and set down the bowl. She arranged the pillows and Allyn, shoving against the mattress with his feet, scrunched himself up to a sitting posture. His right stump flailed to help him keep his balance. The left, which was wearing fresh bandages, he held away from himself, stiffly. Karen reached for the nearby tin-can alky lamp and lit it with one of the ubiquitous new strike-anywhere matches she'd helped design. Then she pulled the bowl closer to her knees and lifted out a spoonful of the soup.
    "Dinner?"
    "Yes, please."
    She gave him a spoonful.
    "Ack. Jerusalem artichoke."
    "'S'good for you. Hang on a second."
    Karen found it difficult offering the spoon from the right, and moved round to the left side of the bed. They spoke between his swallows.
    "Adjustments," observed Allyn. "We learn fast."
    "Mnh. Eat."
    "Yes'm."
    "What's with the bandages?"
    "You never did beat around the bush. Dunno, they can't keep it clean. We tried the pross – pross –"
    "Prostheses."
    " – hook things, and I guess it was too soon. There's stuff going on in this one." He waved his left stump, then blanched visibly.
    "You try too hard. I said, just teach."
    "Well, I was always hands-on." He smiled again.
    She gave him the last bite, and set the spoon down in the empty bowl. Drawing a bit of cloth from her possibles bag, she dabbed at his chin. "So, you came up to see me? Where were you?"
    "Rogers' – New Wilson, I guess. I was working at the old Wilson's, showing the kids how to prune, and came down with fever. Went home, and now I'm just the boy next door."
    Karen's knees began to bother her, so she switched to squatting on her heels. "Didn't you go to the clinic?"
    "Oh, yeah, they've seen more of me than anybody else. 'Sick' of me by now. 'Specially Marcee, I think she thinks I'll give the baby something."
    "What are they doing for the arm?"
    "Everything they can, which is damned little. There's a 'pungent ungeunt', which I think is mostly bear fat, soldier-weed and poppy juice, and lots of comfrey tea. And they say I shouldn't move around too much; the bad stuff travels more in the bloodstream. I had myself brought up here in a stretcher, actually. Everyone's been very kind."
    Was that sweat? Karen felt his forehead. "Damn it. I'm not liking this at all."
    "I was kind of hoping you'd say that. Listen, uh, shit, I don't know how to say it."
    "Just be direct, like me."
    They looked at each other.
    "Okay, I will. What, umm, what time of the month are you?"
    For three heartbeats, Karen said nothing at all. Then she made up her mind. "Be right back."
    "Not going anywhere," he smiled again, radiant this time.
    Karen stood up, crossed over to the open door, peeked into the hall, then turned back into the room, kicking the door shut behind her.