The Strangers

Jeni crouched in the bushes beside the trail, watching the travelers go past, unaware of her scrutiny. When the sounds of their passing had vanished from her hearing, long after they were out of her sight, she slipped back through the underbrush to her village to raise an alarm. Strangers had never been seen around Willow Springs before, or none that Jeni had ever heard of, anyhow. But even stranger were the beasts that they rode.

The Willow Springs community consisted of a fairly large group of extended families who lived close to a wide strip of land that had, ages ago, been a road that connected ancient cities back in the Old Days. When the civilization of the Old Days had unraveled, living near roads had been very hazardous to existence. Jeni’s grandmother had been a little girl when they’d moved here. There was a spring, of course, near the bottom of the highest terrace. Two other terraces, separated by steep cliffs for most of the area facing the ancient roadway, were connected by a gently sloping meadow. They lived on the terrace closest to the spring. Matto, the master herdsman, grazed the goats up on the top terrace, where they were the safest from predators – except for those in the sky. There was a mill at the bottom of the lowest terrace, which used water to turn a great, heavy wheel to grind grains into flour, and the grain fields were also located on that level. In between, there were levels where most of the crafters lived and worked, vegetables were grown, and other activities were centered. The community hall was located about halfway up, surrounded by shops and the market area.

During the Troubles, Willow Springs must have been abandoned; overrun by mobs of starving people who wasted their last gasoline supplies to drive in search of food after the distribution system broke down, the residents who were not killed outright eventually starving to death. Jeni’s many-times-great-grandparents had been living in the remote mountains at the end of the Old Days, far away from the mayhem as civilization crumbled. Some of the survivors had been expecting the collapse and moved there a few years before it became noticeable, but most of them had been residents in the backwoods for generations who didn’t really accept their new neighbors. Jeni hummed the chorus of the Song of the Survivors as she made her way home to alert the elders. She wondered how they would have reacted to groups of strangers traveling through their mountains – would they have remained hidden or would they have confronted the travelers – or maybe welcomed them?

Teachers had passed down stories for hundreds of years, putting the words into cadences and music to help youngsters remember their history. There were songs about events that led up to the Collapse, and songs telling how their forefathers had emerged from the backwoods just a few generations ago, having been forced to leave after a devastating forest fire destroyed their homes and fields. They had found Willow Springs, abandoned — and set to work rebuilding a community there. The Ballad of Jeremy and Christa told the whole sad story of the exodus from the mountains, and exhilaration as the families had settled into their new homes. Even more thrilling for youngsters to learn was the Sonnet of the Woebegone Women, all about the decline of industrial civilization and the catastrophes that accompanied that decline. One verse of the Sonnet explained how the scientists had developed unbelievably destructive weapons which eventually were used, destroying vast areas of the world. The scattered survivors had struggled to raise their children to adulthood, regardless of their level of civilization.

But none of the songs Jeni knew told about how to find out if strangers were dangerous or if they were potential friends.

After reaching the village, Jeni went to the community hall, where the elderly spent their days either watching after the babies or working at small crafts. The older children also spent part of their days there, learning about numbers and writing, and singing the learning songs. This late in the afternoon, there were few children about – most of them had family or community chores to finish before dinner.

Jeni approached a particularly old elder, Raven. Raven was head of the council, and after Jeni told her about the strangers, she beckoned a middle-aged woman over to her.

“Now, Calenda, you need to gather old Nicko, Tansy, Kitty, and Hawkeye. There is something that the council needs to discuss right now. While you’re at it, you should get the hunters together. We’ll probably be needing their skills as well.” Calenda hurried away, and Raven turned back to Jeni.

“Jeni, thank you for the warning. You were the first to let me know, but I see Pete is hovering impatiently waiting to tell me something, and I think he won’t be the last, either.” Raven waved the girl back to give Bear room.

As Jeni turned to leave the hall, she saw Kitty enter the building at the other end. It was all out of her hands now. She almost walked right into the Teacher, Branna, who was perched on a stool, restringing one of the strings to her gitar.

“Wake up, Jeni, you almost impaled yourself on the end of my gitar!” Branna said, smilingly, to take the sting out of her rebuke.

“Oh, Branna, you’re just the person I want to see. Do you know what our ancestors did when strangers encroached on their territory, are there learning songs about that?” Jenna blurted out unthinking.

“Come, girl, let’s go over to my house. I doubt that Muskrat is back from the fields yet, and I think we’re needing some privacy just now.” Branna took Jeni by the arm and they walked across the commons and down to the next level to a small hut that Branna and Muskrat had built for themselves two springs ago when they’d formally mated at the Spring Equinox celebrations. It was small and crude, but it was their own. Branna reminded people of that, often – particularly her own brothers.

“Now, sit, Jeni, and tell me why you asked me that.”

“Well, I spotted a group of strangers just inside our lands today, and was very quiet, not moving at all until they were far away. They were following the Old Days roadway, over where the ancients had dug right through Rabbit Hill so that they could travel on level ground. If they stayed on the roadway, they’ll soon be past our lands, but what if they’d seen me? What would I do?”

“You did exactly as you should have done, Jeni. You remained quiet and unnoticed, and came back to tell the elders as soon as it was safe.”

Branna, heavy with child, put her gitar on a shelf against the wall beside the hearth, and sprawled into an oversized rocking chair. It filled half of the front of the hut, but Muskrat had insisted on making room for it when he found out they were expecting. He’d wanted to build another room right away, but Branna had finally talked him out of that, not without some difficulty. They could add on later, once they had some idea of how many children might grace their home.

“To answer part of your question, there actually are some old songs about strangers, but we’ve quit teaching them because there are so many songs to learn, songs that are relevant to our lives, that the others seemed superfluous. However, since strangers have been observed, I’d say that we’ll have to dust them off and start singing.”

Branna was just a few years older than Jeni, and had been Teacher for a year before she and Muskrat had mated. After Jeni had reached the age of majority (that is, twelve years old) she had apprenticed herself first to the vegetable growers. She learned that working in the sun was not what she wanted to do, although she had enjoyed working with the plants themselves. After that she’d tried animal husbandry, but the herders, a close-knit group, hadn’t warmed up to her. The goats had liked her well enough, though. This year Jeni was learning to be a tracker. She had been following a game trail, identifying the various animals that had used the trail recently, when she’d seen the strangers down on the ancient roadbed.

The two talked for a few more minutes, mostly about the baby, and soon Muskrat arrived, hot and dirty from a day in the grain fields. Jeni soon left, and decided she’d better check in with Rain, her tracking mentor.

Rain wasn’t home, but Jeni had figured that he’d be with the hunters at the community hall. She went back to the hall, where a large crowd was now gathered. Word must have gotten out quickly, Jeni thought. Even some of the herders were there. Not Matto, of course, but a few of the younger ones were standing in a knot, listening to Raven. Greg, the senior teacher, was off in a corner, riffling through a pile of old songs, written on thick sheets of very brittle paper. They could make paper, but it wasn’t a good way to keep permanent records. There weren’t many other options, though, unless someone wanted to carve into wood or stone. These old songs would soon have to be recopied, especially if they found ones that mentioned strangers. Everybody would want those, Jeni thought.

She spotted Rain in the middle of a group of hunters, and made her way through the crowd towards him. He looked in her direction, and then loudly proclaimed her arrival. “and here she is, herself — Jeni, with the best eyes in Willow Springs.”

The men next to Rain spread out, making room for the young woman. She graciously took her place beside Rain, and listened to the others as they discussed what the phenomenon of strangers in their lands might mean. Jeni wasn’t the only one to wonder how to deal with them.

The spring evening soon arrived, and people gradually returned to their homes and late dinners. Usually folks would quiet down after dark; some people would sing softly or play their musical instruments, some would sit around their hearths and tell stories or do activities that didn’t require a lot of light. Tonight, though, there were many groups of people discussing the strangers. Even the youngest children were affected by the uneasiness of their parents and elder siblings, and fussed more than usual.

At her house, Jeni was besieged with questions by her mother, Dora, and two younger sisters. She repeatedly told them everything she had seen of the strangers, and everything she’d heard at the hall, but they continued pestering her for more as they ate their thick savory stew.

Dora was chronically insecure – she’d never been the same since her mate, the girls’ father, had been killed in an accident. One of the carts carrying grain was backing up to the mill, where Shad had worked, and had tipped over on him as he was directing the men. They did not have any animals suitable for heavy hauling, though teams of dogs were sometimes used to pull small carts or sleds. Shad had died quickly, at least, which Jeni was thankful for. She’d seen people linger on for weeks and months after accidents, or with illness, suffering the whole time but never getting better.

Dora had almost turned the younger girls into smaller versions of her own fearful self, but Jeni, who had been almost an adult when the accident happened, had managed to overcome the tragedy, emerging from grief determined to face whatever life threw her with courage. Not that she didn’t fear; she had many fears but she wouldn’t let fear rule her own life.

Rain dropped by to see Jeni, and they went for a walk so that they could talk freely. Rain told her that even though no strangers had ever been seen anywhere in their territory, they needed to get prepared for the possibility. They ended up at Greg’s home, where a small group were still gathered around listening to more songs. Raven sat among them, with Branna. Greg was coming to the end of a song about strangers. This one warned about treachery – sometimes even among those you know.

Well, that was nothing new, Jeni thought. Human nature seemed to be such that anybody could lie, and most would if the reason was important enough to them. Trust of others had to be earned, it was not a given. She wondered what else Greg had found.

“This next song is titled ‘Dirge for Dubois.” The singer fled his home during the collapse, and later returned to find that the whole city had been burned to the ground. What wouldn’t burn had been toppled. Looters had carried off anything small enough to carry, and people had been carried off as well, probably forced into slavery. There were few tracks, because much of the ground, and the roadway itself, was covered in some hard substance. The singer lamented about the broken roadway, as well – using it as a metaphor for his broken life.” He sang the first verse, the chorus, and the last verse which mentioned the broken road.

Branna, who had been looking through the songs while Greg talked and sang, spoke up. “Greg, did you read this one?” She read the words out loud. “Don’t talk to Strangers, Don’t even Try. Don’t think they’ll be Friendly, ‘cause People can Lie.”

“Just when you’re Soothed into thinking they’re Sweet, They’ll cut off your Head. To them you’re just Meat.” Greg finished the verse.

“What kind of people were they?” Several voices could be heard asking that question.

“Those were rough times,” Greg said, “but from this and other songs, it appears that cruelty was common among the ancients. They lived in cities so large that it would take days to walk from one end to the other. But they could travel across those cities in mere hours.”

“Did they have horses?” Someone asked. “Surely the strangers yesterday were riding horses.”

“Horses wouldn’t need smooth roadways. Besides, those hard surfaces would have hurt their feet, wouldn’t they?”

“Apparently they drove ‘cars’.” Brenna explained. She had picked up another song, which seemed to lament the loss of cars – the speed and feeling of power that was only possible from a machine.”

“Our strangers don’t seem to have cars, only horses.”

“Their horses were going slow. Do you think they can run fast, like deer?”

“Maybe not, if they’re carrying men.”

Finally, the fire died down and sleep called out to even the most curious. There were many more night lookouts than usual, though. They were mostly looking in the direction of the old roadway, tonight, instead of the thick woods from which most troubles arrived – wild animals who could be dangerous.

Raven motioned Rain and Jeni over to her as she walked towards her home. They accompanied her and talked for a long while inside her house, and then went in. Rain and Jeni separated, each going to their own homes.

Shortly before dawn, Jeni awoke, washed, and got dressed. She packed extra clothing, water, and some food into a pouch, slung it over her shoulder, and left the house. Rain was outside waiting, with a bow and quiver of arrows slung next to a similar pouch to hers. He handed her a knife, keeping several for himself, and gave her a stout walking stick. She gave him a questioning look, and he grinned at her, saying, “I’ll show you why the stick later. Let’s get going.”

The two walked side by side until they reached the ancient roadway, accompanied by two of the community’s biggest dogs. Motioning Jeni to keep the dogs back, Rain squatted down to study the prints of the animals that had carried the strangers past here the other day. Their feet appeared to have been covered with some kind of metal strips. “Well,” he grunted, getting back to his feet, “they’ll be easy to track, anyhow.”

They followed the tracks down the middle of the roadway. It was totally overgrown with trees, bushes, brambles, and grasses, but the picked their way through the mess, always following the strange metal-shod hoofprints. They stopped only to take care of nature, and to refill their water bladders when they crossed streams, which had eaten away at the regularity of the road surface. There were some deep gullies that they, and the horses they were following, had to detour around. When the sun went down, they camped a little ways from the roadway.

By first light, Rain and Jeni were again following the tracks. After walking a few hours, they saw where the strangers had camped the night before. They had tethered the horses in a group, and pitched tents for themselves around a fire. They noted every detail that they could, and continued on their way. That afternoon it rained, a long, cold spring shower. The roadway was mostly under a canopy of trees, but they still got pretty wet. A couple of hours before dark, Rain called a halt, built a small fire, and set up a crude camp. The dogs brought in a rabbit and a grouse, which Rain cleaned and roasted. They changed clothes, rinsing the dirty, wet items in a nearby stream. After they all ate, he set a snare to hopefully catch something for breakfast while Jeni put out the fire and cleaned up the area, then they turned in for the night.

The next day there were no tracks to follow, but they continued on the roadway. By mid-afternoon, they came upon the strangers’ campsite of two nights ago.

“You do realize that we’ll never catch up to them. Unless they stop for several days, but why would they do that?” Jeni was making conversation at that evening’s camp. They were slightly more comfortable, having found a blanket either forgotten or discarded by the strangers. It had a long tear in it, but worked admirably well as a pillow. The two had been intimate a few times back at Willow Springs, but had never spent time together in such a concentrated setting, just the two of them for days, possibly walking to their deaths. Rain seemed as comfortable with the arrangement as she was, she thought — other than the ‘walking to their deaths’ part, of course.

“Yeah, maybe our leaders didn’t think this through any more than we did.” Rain replied.

“Never having seen horses, how could any of us be expected to realize all the ramifications? I, personally, was too concerned with the idea of strangers to think much about the horses.”

“So, what do we do? We can turn back or keep going. Which should it be?”

“We have learned much about these strangers. They are competent hunters. They know how to sustain themselves on the move. They know horses, and are able to use them to their advantage.”

“They are only passing through.”

Jeni stopped to stare at Rain. “Yes, you’re right. There are no women or children, so they will be returning to wherever they came from.” She suddenly looked around her, as if expecting to see the strangers ride through their camp at any second. “But, will they come back this way or will they go home some other way?”

“Now, that is a scary thought. If they keep going, that implies that they’ve been here before.”

“Or, they might have maps of the ancient roadways, and know how to get back without retracing their steps.”

“In that case, they might know where they’re going. I say we keep following them. However, we need to take better care of ourselves if we’re going to do this.”

“We need a deer. Our shoes are worn out, and our clothes are nearly as bad. Also, we need to provide ourselves with meat, and with other foods as well. I say we stay here for a few days or weeks – however long it takes to prepare ourselves.”

“I agree. Too bad I didn’t bring my axe. First, though, we need to find a better campsite.”

They stayed there that night, and in the morning, instead of walking on the roadway, they searched for a good long-term campsite. After an hour or so, Rain stopped and looked around. “How does this look? There’s a creek not far away, and it looks deep enough for a real bath. There are lots of game animals around, but the game trails are not too close, so there shouldn’t be too much danger of predators coming up on us. And, here are some saplings, placed just where we need them to build a shelter.”

“And it’s close enough to hear if the strangers come back through.” Jeni added.

Rain used a machete-like knife to cut down some saplings which he used to make a crude lean-to, attaching them to the saplings he’d left standing. Jeni wove grasses to drape over the saplings, and kept more grasses as well as pine needles to use as bedding.

That night, they luxuriated in their new shelter. The next day found them preparing for a hunt. Rain and the dogs set off down a game trail, while Jeni searched for other edibles. She found tender young dandelions, and other greens, as well as mushrooms which she knew were good to eat. There were also wild mints, good for tea, as well as other plants useful for flavoring foods. Before noon, the male dog trotted back into camp, a message tied around its neck. Rain had killed a bear, with the help of the dogs. He needed that blanket to make a travois that the dogs could pull, to get the beast back to camp.

Jeni rolled the blanket tight and tied it with her belt, and the dog took it in his mouth, going back the way he’d come. Knowing that there would be much to do, Jeni built up the fire and cut more saplings, as well as gathering more dry wood for the fire. By late afternoon, Rain was back, the dogs having hauled the bear carcass through the woods. Jeni was very glad to see him.

They worked until well after dark, skinning the bear and cutting it into chunks that they could handle. The dogs were kept busy fending off coyotes and other scavengers in spite of the extra fires that Jeni had going.

“I sure hope those strangers aren’t anywhere close to us now,” she joked. “We must be pretty conspicuous.”

“I don’t know about people, but the animals sure are alerted.” Rain picked off a coyote, which caused a food fight amongst the scavengers. “We certainly seem to do everything half-cocked around here. Maybe the strangers can help us get organized!”

There was a full moon that night, which made working in the dark much easier than it could have been, and more quickly than Rain had expected they were done. Jeni set the hide aside to begin preparations for tanning it; but only after they got some sleep. Rain cached the bulk of the meat from a tall tree, after cutting off a few days’ worth of steaks. Tomorrow, they would begin cutting and drying thin strips for traveling.

The next morning dawned damp and gray. The sky drizzled water on their lean-to, but the woven mats kept most of the water off them. Having slept until late morning, Jeni washed up and began slicing the raw meat. Rain crawled out of the shelter a few minutes later, followed by the dogs who had crowded in during the wee hours of the morning. The cache was safe, as was the bear hide. A small wildcat lurked behind a tree, and Rain threw a knife at it, scaring it away.

“You wanted meat, you got meat.” He said by way of greeting. “Unfortunately, I think we still need a deer, unless you want to make really furry moccasins.”

“Moccasins will just have to wait until we get all of this bear processed. Come help me with this, if you will.” Jeni had arranged sharpened sticks to hang over the fire, using rocks from the creek. She had pierced a couple of small roasts – thick steaks, really – and secured them high enough that they would cook without burning. Now she was trying to improvise drying racks for making jerky.

“I’m open for suggestions,” she said, waving her arm toward the results. What she had were thin pieces of meat tied with strips of her shirt and attached to her walking stick which hung high over the fire, supported by tripods made of saplings.

“Not bad, girl,” he replied. “Not what I had intended them to be used for, but it works.”

Three days later, Jeni and Rain were on the trail searching for a deer, when they heard a strange clop-clop sound, made by many animals, accompanied by the creak of leather. They’d circled around, almost to the roadway, following a game trail.

“That’s horses. And the strangers.” Jeni exclaimed. “They’ve come back. What should we do? They’re too close for us to try to go back to our camp. Why don’t we make ourselves known? If they seem alright, we can lead them to camp. No matter what, they won’t be able to find Willow Springs – not with us being way out here.”

“I’ve got a better idea. You take the dogs and hide. I’ll confront them alone to see what they are like.” Rain had a sudden hunch that even if the strangers seemed okay, it would be better if they didn’t know there was a female around.

“I’ll take Misty with me,” she replied. “You keep Gray. Better yet, Gray should remain out of sight. I’ll hide with both dogs until we know what is what.” So saying, she crawled deep into a thicket of brambles, wriggling her way through by hugging close to the ground. Misty and Gray stayed out of the thicket, but buried themselves in the tangled brush nearby.

Rain allowed himself to be seen by the strangers as they worked their way through a particularly tough patch of brush on the old roadway.

The man in the front of the group put up his arm, and the group came to a halt. He said something incomprehensible to Rain, who remained silent. One of the other men dismounted and approached Rain. He slapped him across the face, speaking more unknown words. Rain bolted, dodging as he ran. A volley of arrows flew around him as he fled the strangers, but he did not get hit. The man on foot started to follow him, but soon gave up and returned to his horse. The strangers laughed, and resumed their journey.

Rain was furious! Not only had the strangers insulted him to his face, but then they had dismissed him as if he was some inconsequential vermin. The dogs crept to him where he lay hidden behind an overhanging bank festooned with vines.

Once the strangers were far away, Jeni crawled back out of the thicket and went over to Rain and the dogs. They returned to camp, in silence. Rain tore down the lean-to while Jeni packed everything they could take with them, and by mutual consent they headed up into the hills, silently.

They would have to write new songs, giving new warnings about strangers. And maybe it was time to for their people to go see how their old territory in the backwoods was these days.

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Town Square

Treva watched as the group of strangers came past her vantage point on the roof of an abandoned building at the edge of the old main street of her hometown.  They were all dressed similarly, with similar packs, similar guns, and similar expressions of disdain – as if walking through this community was somehow beneath them.

Nola, her mixed breed canine companion, was concealed from view in the ruins below.  After the armed hikers had disappeared from view, Treva climbed down from the roof and she and her huge dog took off through the alleyways, back towards their home.

Treva’s simple community was originally a block near the downtown ‘business district’ in this former county seat.  While years of decline, due to the rising costs of energy, were decimating the economy many generations ago, this particular block of residents had collaborated in preserving their small enclave.

The original owners and tenants had turned their yards into vegetable gardens, and had smuggled livestock, such as chickens, rabbits, and goats, to raise for food for themselves and their families.  At one point in the decline, they had been forced to barricade themselves inside the block’s perimeters to stay alive; safe from the roaming gangs of starving people who were eventually hauled off by military reserves and police to unknown destinations.

The authorities had ignored the obviously well-armed defenders of the block and concentrated on rounding up those who were on the streets without any resources.  After those poor folks were cleared out, the survivors who were left in the city included that block and a few other blocks that had learned to collaborate for survival, as well as other individuals and small groups who had managed to find food and water, and hiding places.  These stragglers had created some problems for the organized blocks for a while, until they either assimilated into the neighborhoods or else killed each other off.  As the generations passed, the surviving neighborhoods had intermarried and merged, until they all referred to themselves as inhabitants of DownTown.

They had dismantled many of the abandoned houses and other buildings to reuse the materials, and cleared out space for growing crops and keeping livestock – in time, they had connected with survivors from other suburban, and rural complexes, developing a small cashless market within a radius of roughly a day’s walk to exchange products with each other.  As Treva had been sent to watch the strangers approach, other folks had been sent to warn the neighboring communities, and to gather folks in case their assistance was needed.  This would not be the first time that the communities had come to the aid of one of their neighbors, but the last incursion had been three generations ago – the Elders barely remembered it from when they were toddlers themselves.

Treva and Nola soon arrived at the stronghold of the community – a former large church.  Arca de Vida, as it was known during the trying times, had become the community’s center, and it was here, at the lookout post near the top of the steeple, that the strangers had been spotted.  In the small back room behind the huge public ‘sanctuary’, the Elders awaited Treva’s report.

Nola was so attuned to Treva’s state of mind that she raced ahead of the girl to get to the room where the Elders were gathered.  Treva told them that the approaching group appeared to be well accoutered, and she was of the opinion that all of them were men.  This caused some consternation as to how to present themselves.  Rhea and Wanda, the two eldest householders in the community, were delegated to represent the community to the visitors.  Treva’s mother, Raven, the hunting master, organized the hunters into taking up defensive positions while Rhea and Wanda, along with Lance, the farm master, prepared to greet the strangers.

**********

As he led his troops through the small community — a shabby and stinky place in his opinion — the commander, Major Roberts, kept a running account of that as well as other impressions, speaking into a small devise.  He was in the front line, to set an example for his men.

They drew up at the intersection of the streets that delineated the town square, where Rhea and Wanda were waiting.  Lance stood off to the side.  Major Roberts had his men salute the ‘leader’ after they had stopped and been ordered into ‘parade rest’.  He greeted Lance, identifying himself and his troops, and asked to be taken to the community’s authorities, as he had important information for them.  Lance, having been warned by the Elders of what to expect, explained to the Major that the two women standing in front of him were the highest authorities.

Rhea, as the most senior Elder, graciously extended her hand in greeting to the visitors.  She introduced herself and Wanda as the Elders of DownTown.

“Welcome to our community.”  She said, formally.  “You surely have traveled a long way today, and we would like to offer you and your companions some refreshment.  Will you follow my co-leader and I to our community center, where you will find food and drink to quench your needs?”

Major Roberts hesitated, his mind still focused on impressing Lance, who he had assumed was the important one of those in front of him.  Finally, he shrugged and replied, gracelessly, “Of course, I will require some sustenance, and my men will accompany me.  They could use some food, as well.”

He turned to follow Rhea and Wanda back to the community hall, and the troops fell in behind him.  They looked straight ahead as they walked in step through the streets, ignoring the occasional rustlings and snickers that their appearance warranted, from small children who remained in the shadows.

One of the last ranks of men included Henry, who had been hired into the service of the City’s constabulary as soon as he was big enough to carry a loaded pack.  While he marched, Henry fantasized that he lived with real animals, rather than the human beasts that he was forced to deal with every day.

It was said that his mother had been a gentle soul – that was why childbirth had taken her, he’d been told.  He’d also been told that it was his own fault that she’d died, and so he must suffer for that.  His father had told him that repeatedly, although Henry guessed from his father’s ways with his later women that he might have had something to do with her death himself.  The man had been cruel – until his last woman, Hazel, had finally fought back one day when he beat her for serving him stew that burned his tongue.  She’d attacked him with a huge carving knife, stabbing him until he was dead.  The authorities had had her tortured until dead as punishment.

Henry missed Hazel.  It had been Hazel who got him the job at the armory, which had led to him joining the military, which had gotten him here – wherever ‘here’ was.  The other troops were grumbling about this backwater town they’d come to, but Henry thought it looked like a nice place.  The few people they’d seen looked clean and well-fed, and the glimpses of children along their route hadn’t caused the adults to scream at them or beat them, as they would have back in the City.  He couldn’t swear to it, but he also thought he’d glimpsed some big animals, too, running with the children.  In truth, he’d hardly even glimpsed the children, having to constantly look straight ahead, chin up.

The men on either side of Henry were both older; they’d been relegated to the rear for some contrived reason about issues beyond their control.  Plank, the one to his left, had dropped the Major’s gun on the ground when the Major threw it for him to clean the day before.  The stock had cracked, but Plank had been the one amiss.  The man on Henry’s right, Miltie, was always at the back, in one kind of trouble or another.  Miltie was slow, having been knocked in the head by too many bullies when he hadn’t been quick enough to follow orders.  Henry was in the back because the Major didn’t like that he’d played stupid when the officer tried to get him into his tent one night.

A Captain had come by, saving Henry from the Major.  Using boys as they would women was frowned on by the authorities, although there were those who got away with it in the City.  Out on an expedition, though, it wasn’t tolerated – bad for morale.

Since then, although the Major seethed at times, the Captain had protected Henry.  Henry wasn’t sure what to think of that.  Captain Walter seemed all right, but Henry never expected anything to go well for himself; he waited for the payment that the Captain was sure to demand from him some day, hoping that it wouldn’t be too costly.

After a two block walk through the partially demolished town, the Elders entered a church building.  Major Roberts hesitated, and then followed the women into the sanctuary, which had been stripped of its religious trappings.  He crossed himself, furtively, and then gestured for his men to follow.  Some of the men also crossed themselves, but others just continued into the room.  At the far end, below a raised area, there were tables and benches.  A variety of cold meats and cheeses filled large platters, and baskets of breads rested among them.  At one end of the tables there was a barrel full of clean water which women and men dipped with gourds into carved wooden mugs and bowls for the visitors to drink.

By the time Henry got to the tables, there was very little food left.  Miltie and Plank grabbed the last few slabs of cheese and some rolls, leaving only one tiny roll in the basket for Henry.  He took it in one hand, and grasped the bowl of water that a young girl gave him in the other.

There was no space left on the benches, although his companions could have made room for him if they’d wanted to; they didn’t, so he took his bit of food to the steps leading to the raised area, and ate.  The girl who had ladled his water came and sat by him, and began asking him questions.  He was so unused to being in the company of a girl that he found himself unable to do more than mutter a few things – his name, age, a very few other details.

The girl introduced herself.  She was Treva, daughter of the hunting master.  Treva told Henry that she planned to be a hunter like her mother, and had already led one deer hunt, the previous fall.  Henry was astounded – he’d never heard of women being allowed to handle weapons.  He thought about Hazel again.  Perhaps she had been punished more for using the knife as a weapon than for actually killing his father, who had been old by then; practically useless.

As Treva talked, Henry began to relax and finally was able to speak openly.  He told her of his own life, such as it was.

Treva was startled to hear what Henry’s society was like.  They talked until dark, when the visitors were led to a compound where they could sleep, before leaving for their City in the morning.  Unknown to the troops, they would be locked in for the night.  After Treva reported what she’d learned from the young man, Henry, the Elders were glad that they’d taken the precautions that they had.  These strangers could prove to be very dangerous.

~~~~~

The next morning, the visitors were all cranky.  They slept in late, and then complained about headaches; the mystery was solved when the men who cleaned up their enclosure after they left found empty bottles that had been filled with spirits.

“They could have shared them with us; we would have enjoyed a little party.”  Art sighed as he put the empties into a basket.  They’d wash them out and reuse them – glass was not easy to acquire, and this would probably be their only recompense for cleaning up after those louts.  He had not been impressed by the visitors; not in a good way, anyhow.

“Are you kidding?  There would have been some nasty fighting for sure.”  Loam responded.

“Yeah, judging by the way they were eying our women!  What they don’t know could have been the end for them.”  Art found himself unaccountably wishing that they’d had a confrontation with the strangers; he felt dirty just being in the space where they’d been, after them.

“And still could be . . . I don’t think we’ve seen the end of them.”  Bear added his own take on their recent visitors.  “We’d better keep sharp ears and eyes on the lookout.”

After they finished straightening the rooms, the three men headed back to the community hall.  They stopped Raven in the street; she was returning from following the strangers after they’d left.  Her favorite canines, Dash and Wellspring, stayed close by her side, barely giving her room to walk.

“Raven, are they gone, then?”  Art asked his mate.

“Yes, and no.” she answered cryptically.  “Yes, they headed back towards the City, but no, I think they’ll soon be returning.  Next time they will not just come to talk.”

“That’s the impression I got, too.”  Raven’s top apprentice hunter, Mabel, approached.  She’d followed the strangers until they crossed the river, and then had set her dogs to watch and guard.  “Steam and Bella agree.”  After so many generations of dogs and people bonding for lifetimes, there were definitely nonverbal communications between human and canine partners, and possibly empathic exchanges as well; they almost knew what each other’s thoughts were.

“Well, since we all are thinking this way, we had better convene a strategic meeting.”  Bear was Rhea’s oldest son.  He was a natural leader who could read others as scribes could read books, and often called for council meetings to prepare for looming issues that most people weren’t even aware of yet.  It was even said that he could take Rhea’s place if he wanted to, after she stepped down, and that was completely unheard of.  He wasn’t pushing for it, though – he knew the burdens she carried, and heartily wished not to carry them himself.

“First, we need to tell our allies what happened, and what we expect to happen soon.  Meanwhile, we need eyes and ears spread out in all directions.  I do not expect them to come back the way they did this time.”  Raven had her own ways of reading the intentions of others, and her own misgivings about the strangers.  She sent Dash to collect the patrol leaders and their dogs, while Bear sent his dog, Toby, to herd the council members to the hall.

Mabel spoke first to the convened council, telling the facts first, and then adding her impressions of the total situation.  They took her seriously, knowing from past experience her level of rapport with her dogs, but with other animals as well.  Several of the women thought to themselves that Raven had made a very good choice in having her as apprentice; she would be another great hunting master.

After Mabel spoke, Bear related to the council the things he, Art, and Loam had found and sensed as they cleaned the quarters that day.  The three of them were the most sensitive at picking up subtle clues, which was why they’d been assigned to the task.  The community worked as a whole because of the cooperation between the various individuals and good use of each individual’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

Rhea asked somebody to fetch Treva again – her impression of the strangers’ society, as she’d listened to the young boy talk the day before, would reinforce their resolve.  Some of the council members hadn’t heard her story until now, but once they knew what sort of society they were up against, they stood firmly with the others.

With Bear leading the planning, the council formulated a strategy to watch out for the strangers’ return, as well as the actions to go into play when that occurred.

~~~~~

Five weeks later, the guards gave warning – there was a group of strangers on horseback who had crossed the river upstream and had set up a camp several miles away from their farthest fields, which Lance and his apprentices had begun clearing because of their growing population.  This invasion might be a warning to them not to expand as they had intended, or it could be a test of their fortitude.  The scouts rushed the farmers back to town during the dark hours, while making sure that they had not been discovered by the strangers.

One group of hunters, led by Mabel, surrounded the camp upstream, discouraging curious eyes from looking too far in their direction, and causing the wildlife to ratchet up their rustlings to unnerve strange ears.  They didn’t do anything else, yet.

The next day, the hunters watching the area downriver from the crossing detected movement from that direction.  They surrounded that camp, also, and waited.

Two mornings later, both of the flanking groups started to break camp.  A couple of hours later, a smaller group appeared on foot, on the road from the City; it looked like the same group that had come before.

As the groups upstream and down prepared to mount their horses, the hunters loosed their dogs onto the beasts, causing them all to bolt.  The men, on foot now, and their weapons lost with their mounts, were quickly taken prisoners.  The hunters kept them there.

The same group of men that had come before appeared on the road, crossed the river and walked into town, where they again walked to the square, and again, were greeted by the Elders.  This time, when the strangers entered the community hall, they were grabbed, stripped of their weapons, and quickly bound with ropes.  The Major acted cocky, expecting his flanking troops to arrive at any minute.  As the hours went by, and his reinforcements did not arrive, the Major began to rant.  He cursed everybody and everything he could think of, but to no avail.  The townspeople left him and the other strangers alone in the hall until the next morning.  Treva had bound Henry herself, whispering to him that his own life was not in danger, but he needed to ignore what his senses would be telling him during the night.

Later that day, the Major and his companions were joined by their compatriots from both flanking groups.  Sometime during the night, they were also joined by great big snakes, who slithered all over them in the dark.  There were sounds of wildcats roaring at the doors to the hall, as well as the cries of owls and other birds of prey coming from up under the roof.

By the light of the morning, the strangers could see that there were not any reptiles, beasts, or birds inside the hall.  The Elders sent them water and bread, and at noon they were asked if they would change their minds about conquering the town.  The Major refused to entertain such a suggestion, and wouldn’t let anybody else, either.

That night, in the darkness, they again experienced the terrors of the night before.  Again, in the morning, the Major refused to back down.  Several of the other troops, however, begged to be released; they would like to live in peace and prosperity as the townspeople did.  Among them were Miltie, and Plank.

The horrors that the strangers experienced on the third night were even worse than the preceding nights, and in the morning more of the strangers begged for a second chance.  That day, there were only a handful of troops still standing with the Major.  The townspeople finally let them go, after stripping them of most of their clothing – especially their boots, and all of their other belongings.  They were led out of town a different way, taken many miles downstream before being allowed to cross the river, and finally turned loose to find their own way home.

Rhea warned them that if they ever returned to the town, they would not leave alive again.  Only the Major scoffed at that point.

Treva, with Henry at her side, finished telling her tale of the summer’s events to the gathering of young women around them.  They were at the annual Fall Market Fair, and this year there were many events to talk about, as well as new young men to court.  Nola and Petri, the dog that Henry had recently bonded with, lounged at their feet.

 

The Highlands

I picked up my shopping basket and started walking down the street of the condo community. At the corner, I turned, heading through the next development, to the edge of the steep hillside. At the top of the slope there was a small platform where several other people were already waiting. I nodded to them in general greeting, then stood beside Wendy, who lived at the opposite end of the neighborhood. Wendy had a couple of cloth shopping bags on her arm — this was Tuesday, usually a quiet day for shopping — but today was just two days before the Spring Holiday! I hadn’t seen Wendy for months, it seemed, and we spent a few minutes catching up on each other’s lives.

 

While waiting for the cable car to arrive and discharge its passengers from the shopping center down the hill, Wendy told me about her plans for the Holiday. “Rob has been trying out new BBQ recipes for the past month, searching for the perfect recipe to complement his homegrown goat steaks,” she said, adding that “this is the first we’ve tried growing our own goats.” Wendy and Rob were both newcomers who moved up from the city when Wendy inherited the property from a childless aunt. They had started with raising rabbits for meat, which turned out to be a huge success, but after a couple of seasons, Rob had developed a craving for roasts and steaks that didn’t taste like chicken. “Even froglegs, like the ones Susie breeds at her end of the pond, taste just like chicken. Rob wanted red meat that one can really sink one’s teeth into,” she exclaimed.

 

We stepped aboard the cable car, maintained by the consortium of stores at the shopping center below, which provided free service to the residents in the neighborhoods at the top of the hill. It was solar-powered, so maintenance mostly meant keeping the gears and chains greased and the solar panels clean.

 

Wendy continued chatting as we descended, while I, as usual, couldn’t take my eyes off the panoramic view of the city and suburbs spread before us. I was always enthralled by the vista that presented itself, changing every minute during the leisurely trip down the incline. At the top, we could see tall steeples and the highest buildings downtown rising above the treetops. The range of hills beyond the city blended into the distant mountains in the stunningly clear air. Between our hill and the city, several building complexes could be seen at first, including the hospital and a college campus. These were soon lost among the trees and buildings of the shopping center as we reached our destination.

 

The shopping center, The Highlands, boasts a general store, clothing stores, bakery, meat market, furniture and craft shops, post office, bank, several eateries, and a farmers market during the growing season. There isn’t much that we have to travel off the hill for these days.

 

While Wendy went over to the grocery store, I walked across the crumbled parking lot to order some sandals for the hot weather. Although sturdy shoes or boots were advisable for most activities, I still liked to wear loose, comfortable sandals around the house.

 

Across the parking lot from the main shopping center is a former gas station that has been converted into a shoe store. They use leather tanned from local cattle, which have been butchered for meat. Many folks, like Wendy, are into growing their own meats, but others of us have different priorities. I am a vegetable and herb farmer myself, and add my produce to the Hillcrest community’s wagonload of goods brought down every week to the market, which operates on Saturdays and Sundays.

 

Each household has developed its own specialties, which encourages trade, and keeps the economy going. All summer long, artisans and craftspeople, and farmers, make their goods, tend their fields, butcher their meat animals, gather their eggs, pick their fruits and veggies, and bring their wares to market. During the winter months, markets are held much less frequently, and feature preserved foods and a greater variety of crafts. We have turned into a very seasonally-focused society since the Oil Wars left us without access to most fossil fuels. Folks have proven to be remarkably adaptable in the long run within the constraints of our new energy paradigm, although it took many years for most to make the lifestyle adjustment.

 

I stepped into the store, and greeted Rita. She was between customers so I was able to go over and chat with her. I heard once that in the old days, way back in the 20th century, a big company in a state called Texas had sold leather cut in patterns along with the laces needed to make moccasins and purses, as well as other leather items. Rita didn’t use patterns, but custom-fit each shoe for every individual.

 

Rita promised to make me a pair of moccasins, and I also ordered the sandals I’d been thinking about. She already had my foot measurements, but she re-measured, just to make sure my feet hadn’t changed. I had completely worn out my old pair last year, and had been wearing soft leather boots ever since last fall. In fact the boots were nearly worn out too, but I wouldn’t replace them yet. We settled on a price of one large bundle of dried basil, which Rita used a lot in her cooking, for the moccasins, and a sack of onions for the sandals. I would bring them next week when I came back down the hill for my shopping, and she would have them ready.

 

After leaving Rita’s, I continued on my way to the clothing store. I was frugal, and tended to buy my clothing in the off-season. With spring just around the corner, Shelly was busy sewing short-sleeved shirts, light-weight dresses and pants, and other summer-wear. I went in and began looking through the heavy shirts and pants left from last fall.

 

“Cara, can I help you find something?” Shelly looked up from her treadle machine, where she’d just finished putting together the front and back of a child-sized shirt. It was made in the style of most of our clothing these days – a loose-fitting tunic with belt loops and a long cord to hold the voluminous shirt in place. Buttons were only used for special orders, when the buyer provided the buttons to be used. Some clever artisans created metal hook fasteners for sewing onto clothes, but most folks didn’t feel the need for such ostentatious display. Belted tunics were perfectly acceptable to most of the community.

 

“I’m just looking to see what you might have left from your winter stock. You know how I am.” I replied. I wasn’t any poorer than anybody else, but maybe my fashion sense was less developed. I didn’t care much what my clothes looked like, as long as they were functional. The truth was, I couldn’t ever decide what latest fashion to purchase, but when choosing between old leftover fashions from the previous season I had no trouble deciding what I liked – I went by what fit. I soon had two outfits picked out, which Shelly set aside for me. We agreed on the price, and I left.

 

Next door was the general store, where I picked out candles. Trent was in a good mood, and our bartering lasted for a few minutes, until I finally gave in to his final offer. I had enough scrip on me to cover the cost of the candles – even at the exorbitant price Trent charged me, and continued making my way around the shopping center.

 

At the bakery, I bought a freshly baked roll, and a mug of tea, which I took to a table in the sun to enjoy. There were several others sitting around on this mild day after a long winter, and we discussed the weather, the coming growing season, and most importantly, the upcoming Spring Holiday.

 

People who study the past say that our Spring Holiday used to be called the Equinox, when the length of day and night are the same length. There’s one in the Spring, and one in the Fall. We don’t celebrate the one in the Fall, though – folks are too busy harvesting then to stop for any reason. Maybe that’s why we like the Spring Holiday so much, to make up for the one we miss. Not that we don’t make up for it later, when winter begins to set in. That’s the Winter Holiday, the Solstice – when the day is shortest — and we tend to really celebrate that holiday. There’s another Solstice, also, the Summer Solstice, but we don’t celebrate that one much, either; it’s part of our busy time of year, also.

 

Anyhow, this year’s Spring Holiday was going to be better than ever, according to the folks planning it. It would start in just two more days, at the Farmers Market area. Hopefully, the weather would cooperate and the day would be like this one; it would be held inside in case of bad weather, although the feast wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Rob would do BBQ, and Harry would roast a pig. Everyone else would bring whatever they had or felt like bringing. I planned to make some kettles of soup. After I ate my roll and drank my tea, and talked awhile with the others, I got up to finish my shopping.

 

My next stop was the bank. Joe’s family had been headed by a bank manager for a large regional bank before the Oil Wars, and had started her own community bank in the aftermath. They didn’t deal with a lot of cash, but had developed a scrip that the community accepted in place of constantly bartering, which can get awkward when dealing with big or messy items. The bank was actually a former discount store that now served as a warehouse for people’s valuables. Each member of the bank had their own separate section for storing their goods. I used mine to store seeds for crops, and dried bundles of various herbs.

 

I greeted Joe and asked him if it would be possible for me to go through my supplies; I was going to need some seed, as well as to purchase new footwear and clothing. He smiled and invited me to accompany him to the ‘vault’ area, a large storage room that used to hold all kinds of goods, shipped from far away, even from across the oceans, to sell. Although those days were long gone, folks still talked about them as if they had personally lived through those days.

 

Once in the vault, Joe led me to a section of the room where all kinds of good-smelling herbs and dried fruits and vegetables were stored. My shelf was about half empty, which wasn’t bad for this time of year – it would be a couple of months before there were crops to harvest for this new growing season. Besides basil, I had lots of lavender, rose hips, and spearmint, as well as herbal mixes for cooking and for teas, left for trading; my seed stores were inviolate, barring some extreme emergency.

 

I took out some packages of tea herbs for Shelly for the clothes, and measured out some tomato and pepper seeds; if the weather held out, I planned to get my greenhouse seedlings started that week. I had already planted potatoes, peas, and onions in the field, and lettuce, radishes, and onion seeds in my kitchen garden patch. I would get the dried basil and onions for Rita next week; there was no sense in lugging them back home and then down here again.

 

Next to the bank, there was a large building that housed several craftspeople. I stopped at the Weaver’s stall to talk with Etta, who was my next door neighbor. She grew flax in the area between my gardens and the golf course, which was now used for growing grains.   The flax fibers were spun into cloth, known as linen in the old days, and very expensive I’ve heard.

 

Etta was the community expert in fibers of all kinds. She raised sheep and goats, and grew plants for fiber, as well. Some fibers were spun and woven into cloth to use for many purposes, but others were used for knitting and crocheting. I didn’t know anything about those processes – that wasn’t my area. Dyeing the fibers, though; that was something that I knew about.

 

We talked for a few minutes, about the weather, of course, and our hopes for the coming summer. Etta had been experimenting with cotton seeds for several years, having found a small sack of seed at the Trade Fair a few years ago. So far, she hadn’t quite figured out how to get cotton to produce enough to be worth the trouble it took to grow, because of its long growing season. She had been starting them in her greenhouse, which limited how many plants she could grow.

 

Although we had hotter summers now, they weren’t necessarily longer. Winters had become more extreme, also. Climate change wasn’t just ‘global warming’ as the ancestors had thought, but it certainly disrupted civilization; especially after the oil wars, when the old-timers had finally been forced to use renewable energy sources.

 

I left Etta’s stall with promises to combine resources for the holiday; Etta wasn’t much of a cook, but she was generous in providing supplies for others, usually me, to cook or bake.

 

My errands completed for the day, I took the incline back up the hill. I would have time to plant some seeds before dark. Wesley was home; he was developing a recipe for making brew, and planning what to grow where for his ingredients. It would only be a few more weeks before we could plant the hops and other grains that he wanted.

 

Wesley was a woodcarver when he wasn’t creating a new brew recipe or working on the land with me. In the evenings, Wes would whittle while I cooked or baked, shelled beans or worked with my herbs. We would talk about many things to pass the time away. During the winter, we’d go to bed early, as soon as it was too dark to see.

 

Some people had solar lighting, but we enjoyed living according to the sun’s cycle. Some folks still used bicycle generators to run radios or televisions, but the entertainment was generally dated, or else totally irrelevant to our lives. I wondered that people let others think for them, paid others to be creative; what did that do for them, and why didn’t it work for me?

 

Hillcrest had been laid out for a totally different lifestyle than we enjoyed, or should I say, endured. I enjoyed it, but many others did not. They were envious of our ancestors who had squandered so many of earth’s resources for themselves and never thought about how their children, or their children’s children, would live.

 

Like I said, I enjoyed our lifestyle. In my opinion, life all boiled down to such simple things – water, food, shelter from the cold or heat. Someone to share the simple things with, whether family or friend; some activity to do, thoughts to entertain oneself . . .

 

The Hillcrest Condominium Community – from what I’d read, and from the stories told around the fire at night during community gatherings, it was so absolutely unsustainable that I couldn’t help but wonder how those first survivors had actually lived through the wind-down of high civilization. I could see, from the layout of the streets, and the structures of the buildings, that there had been only homes built along those streets.

 

People had been slaves to their automobiles, because they had to use them to go anywhere. If they needed food, they would have to drive to a store to find any because they were not allowed to grow any useful plants in the development. They didn’t know how to make anything that they used, from clothing to furniture, to the gadgets that enabled them to communicate as people had never communicated before, or would ever do again, probably. The kids would have to be driven to playgrounds to play with their friends, or play sports at school. They had to ride buses to go to school, because the schools were so far away.

 

Some folks, even today, drove their little electric cars around, using solar panels to collect and store energy for them. They could have hitched horses to them, or to carts, and gotten around much more efficiently, if more slowly, of course, but preferred to tinker with plugging them in, and all that fuss. I’d ridden in an electric car to go to the Trade Fair, and it was quite exciting. However, for everyday errands, there were more functional ways to travel.

 

In the old days, folks had known people at work or at school, but they had no further connection with them. Neighbors worked at different places and had no connections to each other. This was the American Dream, apparently.

 

And those homes . . . they had been very badly designed. Windows facing the wrong way, so that breezes couldn’t cool the rooms, decks placed where the full afternoon sun would blast anybody who was crazy enough to try to spend time out there; no insulation, so winter winds blew right through the house; great rooms that couldn’t be heated or cooled efficiently.

 

Our house had been like that a long time ago. The first survivors had rigged up a greenhouse on the deck to take advantage of the hot sun. They’d used the great room for overwintering tender plants such as citrus trees and tomato plants, so they’d have food during the winter. The upstairs rooms became drying rooms for crops and herbs in the summer, and cold storage in the winter. The garage, cleared of useless vehicles, was cool in spring and warm in fall, but impossible both in hot weather and in cold. The people mostly lived in the basement, which was protected from the elements by earth.

 

Those survivors probably wouldn’t recognize the house if they saw it now. The garage walls were knocked out several generations ago, replaced by wooden fencing; our chickens found it to be a comfortable home.   The kitchen, appliances removed, now featured a stovepipe rising up the center of the room through the former skylight, roofed over except where the pipe ran through it. The non-weight-bearing walls of the dining room were removed; the only heat available was from that woodstove in the kitchen, so the rooms on that side of the house were turned into one cozy area.

 

The staircase to the second floor divided the house, into two distinct sections, and a large blanket hung between the kitchen area and the steps, to keep the heat in during winter. Above the kitchen/dining room space, which we called the living area, there was an open loft area – open to the great room-turned-into-greenhouse. It actually stayed rather warm, and was now used as a bedroom in the cool months, although most winters required sleeping in the kitchen area. The bathroom and bedrooms upstairs were my storage and drying areas.

 

This particular ‘unit’ as they called them back in the day, had a closed-in basement. Some folks with similar basements had taken to living down there, but I didn’t like not being able to look outside, and made do with living on the first floor and loft. Wesley was even more warmblooded than I, and never seemed to get cold. He was a great sleeping companion on cold nights.

 

We liked to play music and sing in our leisure time, which generally meant twilight, when it was too dark to see to do anything else. Sometimes, if the importance of the task warranted, we would light candles to continue working into the night, but that was seldom necessary.

 

Wesley and I had been together for just over two years. He was from a neighborhood at the edge of the city, and had come to the Spring Holiday three years ago. We had hit it off, and during a later visit, had invited me to join his family in going to the Trade Fair that fall.

 

The Trade Fair is the event of the year around here. Folks come from two or three days’ travel away (those who used horses, anyhow), and camped out at the Fairgrounds, on the other side of the city. The Fair lasted a week, and every day, folks wandered around the stalls, looking to see what wares were available, and haggling with the vendors. Wesley had cousins from downstate who were in the breeding business. They mostly had horse breeds, but one of the aunts had branched out to alpacas and llamas.

 

Wes and I had helped Auntie Rana care for her small herd; she had several baby animals to barter, and a few adult llamas to get people’s attention to her stall at the Fair. Her man, Lester, wanted her to give rides to folks, but she refused to subject her charges to that indignity. The livestock stalls were along the perimeters of the Fair, and there would have been space for a riding circle. Rana suggested that Lester provide horse rides, instead; an idea that didn’t go over too well. Lester was a good horse trader, though, and the two complemented each other. She kept him from acting like a fool, and he kept her from taking everything too seriously.

 

By the time the fair was over, Wes and I had come to an understanding for our own complementary relationship. My family was small, there being only me and my parents at that time. Wes had several siblings, and his family did not need him there, so he moved up the hill to stay in my family’s home. We all worked the land, using horses, from his inheritance, to plow and cart supplies. His folks had blessed him by giving him breeding stock, and we soon had a couple of foals to raise, in addition to growing herbs and vegetables. So far, Wes and I had not had any little ones of our own, but we remained hopeful while we continued enjoying each other.

 

My folks had died during a flu outbreak the previous winter. My herbal remedies just did not work to ease their symptoms. Many other elderly folks had also succumbed to the virus that year, as well; it had been a particularly pernicious strain. According to historians, the serious flu outbreak right after the Oil Wars had been very similar, and just as fatal in the end. Even the old time medications hadn’t helped those victims; all any healers could ever do, no matter what the level of technology, was to treat and wait – hoping for the best.

~~~~~

 

The Spring Holiday went off without a hitch. The weather was warm and sunny, and people came down from the mountains, up from the river towns, and from everywhere in between to participate in the festivities. The food court offered basic victuals such as BBQ, soups and breads, and herbal beverages, that everybody was urged to enjoy.

 

In addition to the free foods, there was a section of vendors nearby who sold specialty items – fried dough creations, sausages, candies, desserts and other carry-overs from the old traditions – as well as homemade brews and wines, which it is said they couldn’t do before because of all the rules and regulations.

 

Wes’s family joined us for the day’s celebrations, and three of his siblings remained for the evening festivities. There was plenty of wine and brew, as well as home-stilled liquors, to facilitate the music and dancing that celebrated the return of warmer weather and a new growing season. I tested out my new moccasins dancing with Wes.

 

In the wee hours of the morning, as the sky lightened with the dawn of a new day, Wes and I, with the siblings — Charlie, Lacie, and Stern – made it back home to sleep it off. The sun was about halfway up the sky before we awoke again. Wes and Charlie went out to tend to the animals, while Lacie, Stern, and I prepared food. While we worked in the kitchen, Stern told me about some ominous news he’d heard from Auntie Rana.

 

“There are folks downstate who want to organize all of the communities along this side of the river. They convinced the folks at the county seat that we need to band together to protect ourselves from roving marauders, who, they claim, are overrunning towns between them and the coast. The folks across the river have already joined them. We haven’t heard of any incursions, at all – just their word that it’s happening. Charlie and I are going to go exploring that way, to find out what’s really going on.”

 

Lacie had come up behind Stern while he was talking, and interjected that she was going along with them. “We want Wes to accompany us too – just so you know. Charlie is telling him now, I’m sure.”

 

Well, sure enough, Wes came back in, all set to go exploring with the three. “And there are others going, too.” He added, “not only my kin, but other families from the city and the county are sending young people out. Some other folks from here are going, as well.”

 

“I want to go too.” I said.

 

“Cara, you can’t. There’s nobody else here to keep the farm going. Besides, you need to take care of yourself.”

 

I could have stomped his feet into the ground! How did he know I was pregnant, when I wasn’t even sure yet? “I’ll be careful,” trying to convince him that I should go, when we both knew that it couldn’t be.

 

“When are you figuring to leave?” I finally asked, admitting defeat.

 

“Not for a few days. We have a lot to do to get ready.”

 

The next few days were whirlwinds of activity. The men, and Lacie, hunted deer, and butchered a kid for meat to dry for the journey. I mixed up packets of trail mix, and gathered supplies of beans and grains and herbs for them to live on. They planned to avoid most people until they knew what the situation really was. Besides, even though Joe’s scrip was good even on the other side of the city, it probably wouldn’t be accepted where they were going.

 

Way too quickly, the day of departure arrived. Wes saddled up the male yearling, and rode beside the electric car that we borrowed from Taylor to take everything to the city, where they would meet the rest of the explorers, along with llamas for beasts of burden, and other camping supplies. I didn’t have to make that return trip alone, though – Wes’s youngest sister, Serena, came back with me, to help out. She was a good sturdy girl, well-accustomed to handling horses and livestock. She confided to me, on the trip back to the hill, that she was looking for a mate as well.

 

“None of the men, or boys, that I know are what I’m looking for.” Serena wasn’t sure just what she wanted in a mate. Having seen close up many relationships in her extended family, she knew what she didn’t want. She hoped that she would know what she did want when she found him. “Maybe I’ll find him at the Highlands.”

 

~~~~~

 

We spent the next six weeks working in the gardens and fields, taking care of livestock, and trying not to worry about Wes and the others travelling into unfamiliar territory. Besides being in strange locales, they might have to navigate through strange mores, as local customs could differ enough from their own to put them in danger, unwittingly.

 

I was definitely pregnant, and kept busy with chores all day long every day, and into the evening as well. I could not keep my thoughts from worry; at the back of every thought was the knowledge that I didn’t know how Wes was faring.

 

Serena was a good companion, who kept both of us in good spirits. She had made friends with several available men in my circle, but none of them struck her as ‘the one’.

 

Finally, just two days before the full moon in July, Wes arrived home. He came walking up the road, leading a llama laden with a few small packs on its back. Serena was feeding the chickens in the front, and noticed him half a block away, and she called for me. I was around the corner of the house, weeding one of the herb gardens.

 

“Wes, you’re here!” I cried out.

 

“Yes honey, I’m back, and it is a wonder. Sissy, here, could use some water and food, after we get her unloaded, and I could do the same.”

 

Serena unloaded the llama, took it into the barn, filled the water trough and gave it fresh grain to eat. I led Wes into the house. While I poured water from a jug, and cut thick slabs of bread and cheese for Wes and handed it to him, he just kept looking at me.

Finally he said, “So, when are you due?”

 

“Not until late fall.” I answered, and then threw my arms around him. “You made it home – I was so worried that you wouldn’t!”

 

“It wasn’t an easy trip, and I will tell you all about it, but also, we must gather everybody we know together because we have some decisions to make. What we learned is going to change our lives.”

 

I sent Serena to tell everybody that Wes was back, and to call for a meeting. “You tell them to send for the Mountain folks, as well as everybody on the hill. Charlie is gathering the folks down in the city to tell them, and word will spread quickly down that way. They should be able to get here day after tomorrow, and that’s when Wes will tell everybody what he’s found out.”

 

We spent the next day preparing for a feast – gatherings like this required providing for all of the hungry travelers who would not be able to cook and hunt for themselves here as they would have been doing for themselves at home.

 

That very afternoon, families began arriving, and the community took on the excitement of a celebration; at least for the youngsters. Adults were apprehensive about the news, of which they’d heard bits and pieces. Rumors had augmented what little was known until some folks were sure it was the end of the world for them.

 

The next evening, after a good meal of vegetable stews and meats, Wes called for quiet as everybody gathered around the market space in the shopping center. There was no place else where so many people could gather at one time.

 

“As you all know by now, a few siblings of mine invited me to accompany them to the lowlands, to find out the truth to the rumors we’d heard at the Spring Holiday. These rumors, you’ll recall, were that there are people at the state capital who want to organize everybody into a larger government. They said for protection, but we were afraid it was more of a scam – that they just want some of our hard-earned goods and products, in return for what?”

 

“So, that was the point of our expedition; to find out why they wanted to rule over us. Was there some foreign threat, or perhaps another kind of threat from folks close by? After meeting with country folk, and with some city folks at several cities between here and the sea, we came to the conclusion that these organizers are just looking to line their own pockets. They’re inventing threats and enemies where, in truth, there are none.”

 

“However, they do have lots of guns, and ammunition. It is not hard to make, but they must have been stockpiling for years to have amassed enough to be threatening peaceful folks like those we met on our journey. Enough that most of them have buckled under the organizers’ threats. They call themselves the “Patriotic Americans” and are determined to rule over this side of the continent, for starts. They not only have men and guns, but they’ve also confiscated any technology that the communities they’ve absorbed had. They travel in electric cars and trucks, and can move fast, when there are roadways that are not too deteriorated, that is.”

 

“My idea is to destroy our roads and bridges to keep them away. I know that won’t work forever, but it gives us a little more breathing time. Time to figure out a better solution.”

 

“They’d better never try to reach our mountain,” Kenny, an elderly hillbilly threatened.

 

“Well, they’d have to get through us first.” Wes answered.

 

“And us.” Charlie echoed.

 

“Waaall, I guess we just have to make sure that that doesn’t happen,” drawled Kenny.

 

The folks got down to the nitty gritty then, and figured out how they were going to deal with this. I have to confess that I was more concerned with everyday life and the baby on its way than I was about some threat that might not happen for years.

 

One night, we were awakened by bombs going off in the far distance, across the river. Somebody had apparently found some missiles, too, although they didn’t go where they were aiming them, from what we found out afterwards. The attackers shot their missiles up, which then came back down and destroyed their own forces. The defenders weren’t much better off; they set their own armory on fire and blew up the whole shebang at once. That was a sight to see!

 

It will soon be time for the Spring Holiday again. My moccasins are worn out already, so I’ll need to get down to see Rita again one of these days. Wes will be entering his new brew in the fermented drinks contest this year, and he may well win.

 

Serena found a good mountain boy, a grandson of old Kenny, to marry. They had the wedding at the Winter Holiday, held on the Mountain. Serena broke tradition to move up with Randy on the mountain. She’s from that big family of Wesley’s, also, and they don’t need her there. She took a pair of breeding horses as a marriage gift, so she’ll still be working with horses. She is already expecting.

 

I gave birth to a baby girl just before winter, I ‘m calling her Wren.  

 

Balance of Power

Balance of Power

It was the time of the Vernal Equinox. According to the Curators, who remembered and recorded everything that got remembered or recorded, it had been 100 years since the annual Spring Flings had begun. The first Bard, Beau, had written his first song in honor of that occasion, and the community, which at that time only included the folks on Blue Slate Mountain, had gathered together to feast on homegrown foods and drink homemade wines, and listen to homemade music.

The youngsters couldn’t understand why they were celebrating ‘homemade’ anything. After all, every blessed thing they had in their world was homemade. However, they didn’t say anything, or not in front of the Curators or their parents or other adults; they appreciated any excuse to celebrate anything.

Maisy was the Head Curator. Her grandfather, Tim, had followed in his father Adam’s footsteps, in that he was interested in ‘preserving history as a heritage for future generations’, which was part of the description of Adam’s job in the old days. Tim’s daughter, Misty, had also continued that pursuit, inspiring Maisy with her own passion for preserving the past. Preservation had its own rewards, although few people were interested in finding out what those rewards were.

Maisy had never married; preferring the old musty records to the silliness of her peers during her youth. As her generation had grown older, her companions had started their own families, leaving her and a very few others alone with the records. She was not unhappy, though; she had made the decision, herself, to become a Curator.

Maisy’s dog, Margo, napped at her feet. She was a Black Russian Terrier, one of the few full-blooded breeds that still existed, to ensure bloodlines for future breeding purposes. Most of the dogs were mixtures of various breeds – with mostly Doberman, Irish Wolfhound, Newfoundland, Husky, Boxer, and Golden Retriever genes, as well as Black Russian Terrier – from the whole, or fertile, dogs living in the communities at the time of the ‘end’.

Lane, Maisy’s father, had been the youngest son of Ramon and Lydia, who were teens at the time that the old society fell apart at the seams. He had been born nearly a decade after the Great Blackout, the event that had toppled civilization as it had been known. Lane had been a favorite human of the great Black Russian Terriers that his father had saved from the mobs at the pet store when the Great Blackout brought down civilization. Maisy knew all of the details of that Adventure, as she called it in her mind. The pups that Ramon had saved had become his by default; they’d originally been ordered by somebody who had never shown up to claim them, and he’d raised them and their offspring to be loving and useful companions.

Ramon was a city kid who had moved out to their hill in the suburbs just weeks before the Blackout. He was working at the pet store where the legendary dog trainer, Denis, worked and where Denis and Erin, a veterinarian, had met. Denis and Erin had trained all of the dogs at Cedar Ridge during that last summer before the end, and the dogs had saved their owners from the mobs that ransacked the area afterwards.

Margo and her kin were often used to pull travois, laden with game or supplies, or to move people. Today, Maisy would be traveling to the Teepee by travois, courtesy of Margo. Other folks would go on foot, walking beside the llamas, which were their pack animals. Talia was the lead llama handler. The llamas, along with two of the children of their original owners, had been rescued by a group of people who had hiked for several weeks into the mountains when their development, an exurb of DC, had been overrun by starving people after society had collapsed. The llamas were part of the operations of a ski resort that had expanded to include camping trips along the mountain and a river gorge during the warm months. The llamas had served as pack animals for these excursions.

When Talia’s great grandfather, a teenager at the time, had reached the high meadow where his people found the llamas and alpacas, they had also found two young girls who had survived an attack on their family. Trey had married the older one, and Talia was a direct descendant of those two. They had found the people at Shawnee Campground, and it’s kitschy Teepee, three years later, following an old Native American trail. How fitting that it was known as the Iriquois Trading Path, because trading was mostly what they also used the trail for.

Margo pricked up her ears at approaching footsteps; somebody was coming to the Records Room. A head appeared around the open door to the Records Room. It was Noma, of course, one of the few members of the younger generation who had any interest in the Records.

“Hi, Noma.” Maisy called out as the youngster appeared, her GoldenDobie, Sparks, at her side. “Is it time to leave for the Fling already?” Maisy easily lost track of the time these days, but she needed to be at the Teepee for this occasion. She’d be naming the new Head Curator to replace her so that she could step down.

Maisy’s eyesight was getting dim, her memory unreliable, and she just didn’t have the energy that she’d once had. This winter had really been hard on her. Although winters were generally shorter these days, they had become much more cold and snowy while they lasted. The lack of oil supplies had changed their lives in more ways than the elders had expected, according to the surviving records.

Noma nodded as she helped Maisy wrap up the precious paper. They made their own paper now, out of sawdust and fibers from plants that they grew themselves, but it was a long process. She had worked on this batch for the past several days; soaking the wet mass of fibers, pressing out the excess liquid, and then spreading the sheets out on flat surfaces to dry. Concrete worked best, but there were fewer suitable surfaces left intact every year.

“Are you ready for the trip? We’ll be leaving soon.” Noma busied herself as she talked, grabbing Maisy’s overnight pack from a corner.

“I just want to wrap the last of the paper. These sheets have finally dried, and I don’t want to run out.” Maisy told the girl as she finished tying packets of paper to use to barter at the Fling.

People prized her paper, using it only for the most valued purposes. Sometimes young lovers would draw or paint pictures, or write poetry for each other, on the beautiful sheets. There were artisans who would draw or write for a small fee, but most people preferred the personal touch from their admirer. The Spring Fling was known for courtships, as well as for trading goods, music and singing, and of course, feasting.
Once Noma had finished helping Maisy gather her things, they left the building for the ‘barn’ where leather straps and reins were made and stored. This was actually a former dwelling, as all of the buildings in the community were.
__________
The Cedar Ridge community was merged from two former suburban developments at the top of a hill. The present residents’ ancestors had adapted the flimsily-constructed buildings to fit their new lo-tech lives by dismantling those units which were totally non-functional after the end of central air conditioning and central heat. They had dammed the culverts that allowed rainfall to drain into municipal sewers so that they would have water to use, and ran pipes from the ponds to those homes that were downhill from the ponds. Toilets could be flushed, although they had to drain the sewers into a wide field of pebbles along the ravine so that they could filter. Water flowed from the faucets in the sinks after they were done, although it had to be boiled before ingesting.

The first winter, according to the existing records – diaries kept by a few of the community’s residents – was very difficult for the survivors. After having fought off incursions by hordes of starving folks, many of whom had turned to cannibalism, they had had to crowd together into the few homes that could be kept warm. Although many of the units had gas fireplaces, which could easily be converted to burn wood, the fireplaces were generally located in ‘great rooms’ which were impossible to heat without using prodigious quantities of energy. These homes were built for cheap oil.

Not only were the homes themselves wasteful of energy, but also the structure of suburban life in the old days had required using a lot of oil in the form of gasoline to get to work, or to go shopping for food; which had been shipped in diesel trucks, for thousands of miles depending on the season. Children had to be carpooled to play with their friends or to participate in other social activities, which used even more energy.

Maisy had only a dim idea of the meanings for some of the things written, or told, by the elders, the folks who had lived in that high-tech era. They had tried to educate their offspring about the old life, but it had little relevance for them, who were living much simpler lives, with no expectations that the old days would ever return.

Pheasant Ridge, the pretentious name of the upper development, had been more prepared than many communities to survive on their own. The residents had begun planting community gardens, as well as training their dogs, during the last few years of the ‘old times’. A few forward-thinking folks had convinced the rest to prepare for tough times. Most developments hadn’t been prepared, and the residents likely ended up starving to death and/or ending up in somebody else’s stewpot. Some displaced people had found shelter at Cedar Ridge, which they called the merged communities of Pheasant Ridge and Cedar Heights, the development between Pheasant Ridge and the shopping center below, or to other surviving communities in the area. Maisy only knew of a few surviving communities – all of them in the foothills of the mountains. One of the ‘elders’ had insisted that there were people in the City who would have survived, but nobody had tried to find out. Yet.
__________
Maisy finished arranging the straps on the travois and around Margo, making sure she was comfortable. Margo was getting up in years along with Maisy; she was Maisy’s fourth dog.

So many of the incursions that the original Elders had fought off had involved the raping of women and children that the next generation had decided to deliberately pair each toddler with a puppy. As the two grew up together, they would look out for each other, defending from any harm. This was considered sensible for many reasons; chief of which was that rape would cease. Even within the community, there had been occasions of domestic violence and bullying — sexual and otherwise. Although most of these incidents had been perpetrated by men, there had also been instances of women abusers. Having dogs as lifelong companions for everybody soon put an end to any kind of coercion.

Maisy couldn’t imagine living without her canine companion. She, as all females and males in their circle of communities, was able to stand free from any abuse because she had Margo to back her up. It was such a simple, but elegant, solution to the age-long quest for equality, Maisy wondered that nobody had ever thought of it before.
As Talia, the llama handler, checked the loads on all of the llamas, folks began walking along the trail – now a road, really — that led from Pheasant Ridge Point to the Teepee at Shawnee Campground and beyond, to the communities on the other side of the mountain. Maisy got herself strapped into the travois. Up until two years ago, she had walked with the rest of the younger folks, but today she was grateful for the ride.

While she watched the woods slip away behind her, Maisy thought about who she was going to name as her successor. There were several candidates, and all were equally able to take over the leadership position, but Maisy wanted more than just capability. The Curator role had evolved into the chief leadership position of Cedar Ridge, as well as the other communities in their circle; now known as the Tri-Mountains, which were comprised of Blue Slate Mountain, Big Bear Mountain to the west, and Snowtop Mountain, where the llama herders lived, to the southwest. Curators had become so important because the leaders continually looked to the Records to see what was done in the past – more as a warning of what not to do than as a model for them to emulate.

Maisy sighed. She couldn’t decide until she talked to the other leaders. She had an idea that the leaders should be female – men had screwed up so much, throughout history, that she couldn’t see letting them take over again. After all, with the dogs as guardians, even smaller and weaker women couldn’t be intimidated anymore. Politics had become much less important as security became a given, not a prize to the highest bidder. People could concentrate on really tackling the issues that they faced instead of posturing for future advantage and influence.
__________
Shortly before dusk, the Cedar Ridge folks arrived at the Teepee. Built during the mid-20th century, it had been a piece of American kitsch. However, its very uniqueness had drawn some valuable folks to the campground, folks whose efforts on behalf of the Campground had enabled the community to survive the hard times after society collapsed, as well as to help the community thrive in these new times.

The rest of the celebrants had already arrived by the time that the Cedar Ridge contingent got to the campground and settled in. Maisy sought her fellow Curators as soon as she had unstrapped Margo from the travois, and dropped off her pack in the cabin designated for Cedar Ridge.

Dahlia was the leader of the Wildcat clan, the remnants of a Native American tribe which had lived in the area since before colonial days. There were two white families who had intermarried with the Wildcats. One of them was the family that built the campground, and the other had been among the first settlers to move into the then-western frontier. The Campground family was currently headed by Reba, a member of the fourth generation since the end. Her predecessor had succumbed to an especially viral flu several years ago, and Reba had been overwhelmingly voted into the leadership for the Campground community.

The other family lived near the Campground, on a former farm turned into horse ranch. They had taken in many of their less fortunate neighbors as civilization had crumbled, and had defeated several attempts of intruders to take over the property. Farly was the current leader of the Moonshine Ranch community.

One of the early mixed blood sons had bought the clan’s traditional lands, or as much of the territory as he could, to preserve it for his native relatives. The clan had adapted some of their ways to coexist with the immigrants, but kept the majority of their traditions. Having sampled the ‘white man’ culture, they could make informed decisions as to how to live their lives. The overwhelming majority had preferred their own traditions to the European, or ‘American’ way of life.

Another group of suburbanites, in a development across the old highway and over the creek from the Moonshine, had survived the initial assaults from starving mobs, only to find that their neighborhood was unable to work together in the long run. They had been absorbed into the other surviving communities.

The Llama herders were based many miles away. They had become valuable trading partners, and had intermarried with the other groups as well. Currently led by Dyad, they were using llamas for transportation, and alpaca fiber to make cloth. Their high elevation shortened the growing season, so even though they were technically south of the Blue Slate Mountain folks, they depended more on trade than the other communities did, to obtain some of their food as well as other supplies.

The only other surviving community that Maisy knew about was located on the near side of the next mountain over. Several retired truckers had been living on that land, and they had joined forces when it became impossible to go on as before; they had been working towards self-sufficiency and merely needed to coordinate their efforts to continue to sustain their lives and property. Stemi, Maisy’s younger brother, was in charge there now. She only saw him, or any of the Big Bear Mountain folks, a couple of times a year.
__________
The inhabitants of the Shawnee Campground had huddled in the building known as the Teepee during that first harsh winter, but had dug caves into the southern-facing hillside near the Teepee so that they could take advantage of the insulation provided by nature to not only stay warm in winter, but also cool in summer. Their open southern walls were filled with windows and planter boxes, adapting the Cedar Ridge concept of utilizing the sun’s heat and light for greenhouses that would help feed them.

Maisy, Reba, Stemi, Farly, and Dyad, all of them grandchildren of those who’d lived through the collapse, who had actually heard stories of the old days from the survivors themselves, met in Dyad’s home to discuss Maisy’s successor for Cedar Ridge. They met in the garden room, taking advantage of the warmth there after being bathed in the rays of morning and early afternoon sunlight.

Maisy began by summarizing where she saw them as a culture, and the part that each separate community played in keeping their culture going. Each had similarities, but also differences in how they had evolved.

The Cedar Ridge community had gotten off to a very good start, and had the most diverse gene pool, but was becoming seriously unfocused about working towards the future. The latest generation seemed to be uninterested in learning to read or do simple math, let alone preserving the old knowledge.

“Maybe they just don’t see any relevance for their own lives,” Maisy ventured. “After all, all any of us know about the old days is what we’ve been told, or read about. I’m not entirely sure that the youngsters are wrong in thinking that they need to change the focus of our society. My main focus in studying the past is really to avoid making the same mistakes. There’s got to be a better way.”

“We’ve had the same issue over at the Moonshine.” Farly commented. The others nodded their heads in agreement. “The youngsters just don’t care about the same things that we were taught to value; maybe we’ve failed them.”

“I don’t think it’s that, but I do think we have a serious issue.” Stemi, the only male in the group, offered his opinion. “How do we motivate them? Or should we? After all, it’s their world, or will be in a few years. They’ll grow up someday, or not; build a future or fade away into history.”

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Maisy exclaimed. “None of our children’s generation – at least in my community – cares about preserving the past. Right now, I have exactly one young person, who is still a child, really, interested in Curator activities. A girl, by the way. It’s time for me to step down. What should I do?”

“Well, you know what has to be done. Your protégée will have to take over – she’s the only real candidate.” Reba suggested.

“Well, it’s not quite that simple; Noma is only a child. Shouldn’t the next leader come from her parents’ generation?”

“Noma — isn’t she one of Heather’s descendants?” Farly joined the discussion, recalling the legendary girl who had been one of the victims of rape and abuse that characterized many women’s experiences, even before the rioting and chaos of the end. She had overcome her trauma, but abhorrence of rape had been a major characteristic of her suburban development community before it dissolved, the inhabitants dispersing to various neighboring communities and taking their beliefs and attitudes with them.

“She comes from good lines; not that any of us don’t, but she’s also related, on her father’s side, to Maria, who saved her folks at the ‘end’ and Stone, one of the Wildcat truckers, who began warning folks to prepare for collapse, based on his observations as he travelled the interstates? With that pedigree, I’d be surprised if she wasn’t interested.”

“Well, her older brother doesn’t seem to care.”

“What do you expect? He’s a male. Apologies to you, Stemi.”

Stemi nodded his head in acceptance of the thought that men, in general, seemed to prefer living in the moment; with an eye to the future. Maybe it was something in the genes, or hormones. Unlike most of his male peers, Stemi enjoyed learning about life before the end.

“This brings me to my next thought.” Maisy continued. “Should we go a step further and declare that only women should become Curators?”

“Could that possibly work?” Dyad asked, almost in a whisper. She, along with nearly everybody else in their circle of communities, had rejected organized religion for being too much of what it supposedly preached against. Not that she was without a moral sense or reverence for life; she merely thought it should be taught as the right way to see the world, without framing it in rites and rules. “All of our traditional social systems took male superiority for granted. Well, all except for our Native American cousins.”

“So, we need to do some soul-searching and engage in debate about all of this. I would like to concentrate on this issue after I step down, and I will definitely name Noma as my successor.”

Maisy felt a heavy load lift from her shoulders as she made those two decisions. They all filed out of Dyad’s home and returned to their respective camps to prepare for the feasting which would begin in a few minutes.

Soon, Maisy joined the rest of the Cedar Ridge contingent in the Teepee, which was filled with long tables of food, and hundreds of people. The dogs were relegated to the outdoors for the moment, but would rejoin their humans after the feast. While the people ate roasts, veggies, breads, and desserts, the dogs had their own feast – of bones, meat, offal, and other delicacies.

After everybody was fed and settling into blankets and cushions around the stage, the kitchen crew put up the perishable foods, and the dogs were allowed in. The musicians and singers took their places on the stage, and the evening’s entertainment began. After hours of good music and camaraderie, washed down with wines and various brews, the festivities concluded their first night. The following day would mark the actual equinox, and there would be a ceremony to mark the occasion. That wouldn’t happen until evening, though. The daylight hours would be filled with people visiting those they seldom had contact with, trading their handicrafts, planning future deals, and other important social business.

A council, comprised of the Curators, the oldest elders, and their ‘apprentice’ leaders, convened during the afternoon, while the cooks prepared tables of food again, and the young people renewed old friendships, forging bonds with certain favorites for future ‘matings’.

That evening, after the time of sunset was duly recorded, making the Equinox official, the four-year-old children were called to the stage for recognition and instruction; they were about to receive their first dogs. Puppies born during the last year were brought into the Teepee, while all of the older people stepped back to the perimeters of the building. The puppies and children mutually chose each other, and the children named their first dogs.

The Curators gave speeches – some were solemn, and some just talked enthusiastically about the bonds between dogs and people. As always, there were more puppies than kids, but older people took the extras in hand. One little girl, Lark, had been unable to choose between two puppies, and was encouraged to keep both. She named the Doberman Moondog, and the Wolfhound/Russian Terrier mix Irena.

After the dog naming, the Curators and other leaders spoke about the changes they wanted to make in their social organization. They asked everybody to think about what the changes would mean, and whether it would be beneficial or not. They would call for a vote the next day.

The musicians and singers began again, and folks danced to the music until the wee hours of the morning. Young people paired off and talked quietly or danced, as they explored the prospects for relationships. Cultural mores were in flux, and nobody had any hard and fast rules about what was appropriate, other than the general rule that people should treat others as they would like to be treated, themselves.

The next day was the last day of the equinox celebration; the Spring Fling. After a late and leisurely breakfast, the adult members of the communities voted on the structure they wanted for their society. Noma, the newly installed and most junior Curator, mostly watched and listened as the combined population of adults – anybody past puberty in their definition – debated the issue, swaying each other back and forth about the merits of whether women should be the authorized authorities in their society.
For every argument in favor, someone would have a rebuttal, and vice versa. After two hours of intense discussion, the advocates for women leadership won the support of the majority of the folks, and they immediately set about developing a system to put it into practice.

A few dissenters stalked off to a cabin afterwards, determined to fight the general consensus as their right. They tried to rally Stemi to their cause, but he refused to entertain any ideas that they had. From what he’d seen and read, the women were on to something, and he, for one, was supporting their efforts. Anybody that knew any history at all knew that male-dominated societies hadn’t actually fared so well for most of the population. Their present precarious society was a case in point. The discontents soon left him alone, wallowing in their selfish conspiracies.

The new leaders of the communities kept tabs on them, but didn’t take any action. After all, what could they really do? A few of the younger women, who thought they might one day be leaders, took to watching the actions of their male counterparts. During that summer and fall, they noticed that those men were mistreating their dogs. That did not bode well.
__________
Early one morning in late summer, Noma was awakened by Sparks. She didn’t bark, but rather nudged Noma’s arm to get her attention. Noma lay still, trying to sense what had stirred Sparks to rouse her. At first, she didn’t hear anything.

A muffled clang broke the silence.

The element of surprise was lost by that sound, and suddenly the intruders were visible, leaping from their hiding places and running through the streets of the community. Women, men, and dogs erupted from their homes to defend their loved ones. A battle ensued, with hand-to-hand combat between humans, as well as dogs taking down the strange men.

It wasn’t until after the Cedar Ridge folks had prevailed that they realized that their assailants were all men. Noma wondered where their women were. Surely, they had to have women stashed somewhere. Drenka and Sybil brought one wounded attacker to Noma. They had called off the dogs before they could seriously hurt this one, hoping to get some information from him.

The man was young. He was bleeding from wounds on his arms and chest, and a big gash under one eye. Noma cleaned his wounds while the two warriors held him. After his injuries were washed out and bandaged, she offered him water to drink, filling a gourd from the cooled kettle that stood away from the fire.

“There, I think you’ll live.” Noma told the stranger. “What name should I call you?”

“Why should I tell you?” he answered insolently. “Where’s your chief?”

“I am the ‘chief’ as you call it.” Noma answered. “I’m called Head Curator by the people here.”

“You? Why, you’re younger than me, and I am nothing among my people. This action was going to make me famous, and wealthy enough to buy myself a wife, have children. Now, how can me and my companions face going back, to tell our people that we were defeated by a bunch of women and pets?” He practically spit out those words.

“Young man, look around you.” Noma said. “Do you see any of your companions?”

He looked, and all he could see were the people they’d come to attack, and dogs. There seemed to be as many dogs as people. He shook his head and wiped his eyes, and then looked again. There were still a lot of dogs watching him. “So, I am the only one surviving? Why did you let me live? I can’t go back. They’ll think I was cowardly, and kill me too.”

“Why should we keep you here with us? You invaded our homes, our territory. We did not do anything to instigate your attack. Why did you attack us?”

“Everybody knows that you have technology up here. You women hoard all of the machines and gadgets that our ancestors used so profligately, and you won’t let men have any of it.”

“Young man, whatever your name is, I assure you that we do not have gadgets here. Look at the hearth in front of you. We heat water with wood fire. Our clothes are coarse fibers that we get from plants that we grow, and animals that we raise. The medicines I used to clean your wounds came from herbs that we grew, and dried, ourselves. Where did you get those ideas?”

The man didn’t answer her question. “My name is Richard. I am son of Robert, brother of Will, and uncle of Stan and Sam. I have seen fifteen years, and have hunted and killed the elk. I am a Man. Women are evil; they hide their true characters until they’ve tempted innocent men into doing sins, and they try to come between friends. Everybody knows that women should be under a man’s authority because they are delicate and subject to whims and vapors.”

Drenka and Sybil visibly bristled at the stranger’s words, and their dogs reflected their states of mind. Noma quickly spoke. “I’m sorry that you see the world that way, Richard. We, up here, have gone to great lengths to avoid thinking those kinds of thoughts. We had hoped to rebuild a world without resorting to bully tactics.”
Richard turned in his seat, and refused to look at anybody in the room, or to talk anymore. Noma left with Sparks, but told Drenka and Sybil to remain on watch. Their dogs, Linus and Betty, settled by their feet, eyes glued to the strange young man in their territory.

Richard watched the dogs and the women guarding him, waiting for a moment that he might use to his advantage. That moment never came. The guards changed; a man and a woman this time, again accompanied by two big dogs. Although Richard tried to connect with the male guard, to cast doubts on his worth as a man dominated by women, his efforts were in vain.

Charlie, the male guard, was another descendant of Heather, and had been raised to respect all life, including women. His fellow guard, Melli, was descended from a nontraditional family; her great-grandmother had bonded with both partners of a gay couple, who had managed to find a way to pass on their genes through an unusual mating configuration. Melli definitely had a nontraditional view of society, but Richard had no idea what he was facing.

When Richard could get nowhere with Charlie, he switched tactics, trying to get a rise out of Melli. She merely absorbed his vitriol against evil women in general, and her in particular, and shrugged it all off. This generation of the Tri-Mountains was too secure in their own identity and their bond with their animals, to have any self-esteem issues. In that, the Elders had been wise.

She did listen attentively to Richard’s point of view, marveling at the pack of lies and half-truths that the stranger had been raised to believe. Men were naturally superior. It was obvious – women were smaller and weaker.

Melli challenged him to indian wrestling, and beat him handily. He withdrew again into his own thoughts.

Noma came back later, and asked Richard if he wanted to say a few words over his dead companions before they were given back to Nature. He freaked at that, insisting that if they lost their bodies their souls would also be lost, and they’d wander through an eternity of hell looking for themselves. When Noma asked how they disposed of the dead, he answered sharply that, of course, they embalmed them so that on the Judgment Day they could rise up and join with the rest of the righteous to their rewards in heaven.
Even Melli gasped at that. Noma quietly told him that they did not embalm their dead – they gave them back to the earth mother so that their elements could be recycled, like everything else in the ecosystem. He could bury them, instead of laying them out on remote hillsides, but they did not even have embalming fluid.

Richard agreed that as long as they were buried, their spirits would rest easy, since there was no way to embalm them. His god would understand that, he hoped. Noma gave orders for Richard to be allowed to dig a grave, as he called it, for the dead. He took a shovel, and though it reopened the wounds on his arms, he dug until all of his companions were buried. Then he stood in front of the graves and was silent.

Melli assumed he was making his peace with the spirit, but afterwards, he began cussing her all over again. She began telling him what she thought of his god, but Noma shot her a look that quelled her. She ended up asking him about his beliefs instead, and they talked as Melli led him back to shelter for the night. The next guards soon took Melli, and Charlie’s place, and when Richard awoke, he began his game of blasting men for putting up with bossy women, and women for being bossy. This scenario repeated itself for several days, until one day, Richard got tired of hearing himself browbeat his captors, who had tended his wounds, given him water and food, and listened to his cussing without ever losing their composure.

He slowly came around to thinking that just maybe, what he’d been taught was not wise in the way these people were wise. He began asking his captors about their worldviews, and listened to their responses. Finally, after he’d been there for over a month, Richard gave Noma the answer to the question she’d asked that first day of his captivity.

There were several men from Cedar Ridge who’d wandered into the midst of Richard’s community, a neighborhood in a formerly urban area. They were dissatisfied with recent changes the Head Curators had implemented, and told the priests and leaders, all males of course, that the women in the mountains were hoarding gadgets to keep their men from exercising their natural right to dominate. They had instigated the raid into Cedar Heights, although, now that he thought about it – not one of them had actually joined in the battle. They’d led the raiders to Cedar Ridge, but that was the last he’d seen of them.

Noma asked him to describe them to her, which he did. From his description, she knew who they were, and developed a strategy to neutralize them. They were still living in Cedar Heights with the rest of the community; Noma remembered seeing one of them appear to help drive the raiders away during that battle.

She would have to take action. First, she called the women together, asking them what they knew about comings and goings of certain men. The reports she heard confirmed what Richard had told her, so she went ahead with her plans. They couldn’t be attacked, because they had their own dogs, but several of the dogs were elderly. Some of the older women suggested that they just wait for the dogs to die and then kill the men. Noma had a better idea.

Soon it would be the Fall Equinox, and all of the folks on the Tri-Mountains would be gathering to celebrate. Noma insisted that Richard should go, guarded, as always, by two guards and their dogs. The discontents went to the celebration, also, which fit into Noma’s plan. As she walked to the Teepee, Noma searched the ground for certain plants, stopping every now and then to pick one or gather leaves from another, slipping them into her pack.

A younger girl, Mink, who was a granddaughter of Stemi, followed her, assisting the Head Curator even though Noma wasn’t old or feeble. Noma thought that Mink would likely become a Curator herself, so she encouraged her help. She named plants for the girl, pointing out certain characteristics to identify them and telling the girl what they were used for. At long last, they reached the Teepee, and Noma asked Mink to see Maisy, and tell her what she needed, while Noma joined her peers at Dyad’s home. They discussed the battle that had occurred at Cedar Heights, and the men who’d instigated the raid. Everybody, even Stemi, agreed with Noma’s plan, which they would put into play that night.

After the sunset had been observed, the Head Curators called for a general meeting. All adults were asked to attend, leaving the dogs outside for the sake of room, and soon the Teepee was filled with people who were asking each other what the meeting was supposed to be about. Noma called for quiet, and began her description of the raid on Cedar Heights. Several men began to push towards the doors to leave, but they were stopped by guards, who had their dogs with them. Noma gestured for those men to be brought to the front of the room.

Noma asked them pointblank if they had been behind the raid, and they all denied knowing anything. Then, she had Richard brought out to tell his version. The accused men again tried to get away, but were stopped by guards. Noma called for somebody to fetch their dogs, and Maisy stepped up to Noma’s side carrying a kettle partially filled with some vile-smelling concoction.

Noma again asked the men if they wanted to change their story. They didn’t.
She called for each man to bring his dog to her, one at a time, and waved Maisy over. “I had some special stew made up of common woodland plants, which by themselves are completely harmless. However, the combination of ingredients in this kettle could kill even the largest wolfhound, and it could kill each of you as well. If I don’t hear the truth from you now, I will feed your dog this stew.”

The first man would not change his story, and watched as the dog lapped up the stew that Noma had ladled into a bowl. The dog soon shuddered and fell down. It gave a few labored breaths, and was still. The second man did likewise, and his dog had a similar reaction to the stew. The third man kept to his story, too, but he wouldn’t let Noma poison his dog. She fed the stew to him, instead, and he was soon on the floor and still. The last two let Noma poison their dogs, rather than take the poison themselves. She had somebody come to remove all of the dogs and the man on the floor. The other men were allowed to leave the Teepee, but archers shot them dead before they had gotten ten feet from the door.

In Dyad’s home, where the fallen had been placed, carried there on folded blankets, Maisy administered a liquid beverage, dribbling it into the slack mouths of the four dogs and one man lying motionless on the floor. They twitched, and soon gave deep gasps, and soon were breathing normally again.

Tigger, the dog whose companion would not let her take the poison, wriggled her way to his side, and licked his face. He sputtered, and caressed the big newfyhound, tears rolling down his face. The other dogs had regained their feet, and were being lavished with love.

The men who’d been shot dead were quickly taken away, to give back their elements to earth mother. Prayers were expressed that when they recombined into another living being, that being would be worthy of the life-spirit.

The ‘resurrected’ dogs, along with Keener and his dog, Tigger, soon returned to the Teepee, although there was no music that night. People sat around talking quietly, subdued by the justice that had been carried out. They had had to do something, and Noma, despite her young age, had devised a wonderful plan to isolate the bad apples and redeem the good; in this case, there was one, but if she hadn’t handled it the way she had, the blood of a redeemable man would have been on her hands

The Slow End, Chapter One

The Slow End
Chapter One

“Adam, could you come into my office for a minute?” the Cedar County Parks Director called out as Adam Horst entered the county administration building in Cedar City, the county seat. Adam detoured into the office, and sat down at Gary’s invitation. Bill Wilson, a Human Resources assistant, was sitting there, also.

“What’s up, Gary?” Adam asked. They had been working together on a proposal for a federally funded historical preservation project to restore an old saw mill. Although he knew better because of Bill’s presence, he had to ask. “Has the money come through?”
“No, Adam, it hasn’t. I just talked to our congressman and it looks like the money won’t be coming here at all.” Gary Butler hesitated, then added, “In fact, Adam, I’m afraid that without those funds, I can no longer afford to keep you on the payroll. I’ve got a check here for you that includes two weeks’ severance pay and your accumulated vacation pay. There will be info coming to you later regarding your 401k funds.” Gary got up and shook Adam’s hand, then gave him the check. “I really hate to lose you, but there isn’t any way to keep you on right now without those grant funds. Good luck!!”

Adam had worked for the County for fourteen years, the last five as a Project Manager working with environmental groups and government agencies to preserve the wildlife habitats and historical areas of the County. The last project they’d completed was the creation of the Cedar County Heritage Park, which was located just across Shawnee Creek from his home. The park consisted of the Iriquois Trading Path, part of which had originally been a Native American trail, historic properties, and recreational areas. Shawnee Creek, a tributary of the Cedar River, was a favorite spot for fishing, swimming, canoeing, and camping. The project they’d just lost the funding for was the restoration of Benson Mill, a historic landmark that was located inside the boundaries of the Heritage Park. Other future plans included a historical museum, and the implementation of events to bring the heritage of Cedar County to life.
Accompanied by the HR assistant, Adam packed up his personal items and left the Administration Building. He was numb, although his termination was not a complete shock; he knew times were tough and no job was secure these days. Still, he felt unanchored without his job. Adam got into his car, and drove over to the bank to deposit his check.

Ahead of him in line was Terry Lincoln, who worked for the Benson Township Parks and Recreation department. He was a frequent partner with Adam’s projects, but was on vacation that week; he hadn’t heard yet that their latest collaboration had been rejected. Terry commiserated with Adam on losing his job, and mentioned that he’d heard that old William Thomas was stepping down from running the Animal Shelter because of health problems. “I’d go over there to check that possibility out, if I were you,” he said as he took his turn at the teller’s station.

After Adam finished his own transaction and got back into the car to leave, he thought, why not check it out? He drove to the Animal Shelter, located behind the City’s water treatment plant. Judging from the cacophony surrounding the building, the shelter was pretty full. Adam parked at the lower end of the lot, and walked to the entrance. He went inside, and explained the reason for his visit. The lady who welcomed him introduced herself as a volunteer, saying, “I’m sure you’d be well-qualified to serve as the shelter’s director, but I’m afraid we’re not going to hire another director. Wilma, here,” and she pointed to a middle-aged woman who was sitting at a desk in the reception area, “has been the clerical staff here for many years, and knows everything there is to know about the shelter. We can save a lot of money going with her as manager. She not only works for an hourly wage, but we expect that she will be able to continue working part time hours and still get the job done.”

“I see.” answered Adam. “I suppose she doesn’t need any benefits either.”

“Well, her husband is on the maintenance staff at the high school, and he has a good benefits package, so she doesn’t need any from us.”

“So, it looks like you are all set. Great talking to you!” Adam headed for the door to go outside. Wilma smirked at him as he passed her desk, but he just smiled and nodded at her.

Out in the parking lot, a pickup truck was just pulling in beside his car. A grim-faced man was driving, and a young boy sat crying in the passenger seat. A huge black dog was in the truck-bed, hooked to the cab with a leash. The man got out and started to unhook the dog from the truck, but the boy interfered by climbing onto the bed and hugging the dog, who gave him slobbery kisses. “Please, Daddy, don’t take Tucker in there! He’ll miss us, and Bobby says that they kill dogs who go to the shelter! Please, I’ll make him behave, I’ll make him do whatever you need him to do to be able to stay with us!”
“Now, Billy, you know that your mama’s sick a lot with this new baby, and the doctor said that she’s allergic to Tucker’s hair. You don’t want your mama or your little baby brother that isn’t even born yet to suffer just because you want to keep this flea-bitten old mutt, do you?”

The man finally got the leash unhooked, and started pulling the dog to the back of the truck-bed to get him off. The boy tried, but couldn’t keep the dog on the truck. As soon as he reached the ground, the big dog turned to the boy and started licking his salty tears. Then he pulled the man over to where Adam stood watching, wagging his tail and hoping for Adam to pet him.

“This sure is a friendly, nice looking dog.” Adam said conversationally. “What breed would you call it?”

“He’s a Newfoundland Dog.” The man replied shortly. “The boy doesn’t understand, but we just can’t keep him. Some nice family with lots of room will take him and he’ll be just fine.” He faced Adam, but Adam could tell that his words were for the boy as well.
“I could use a big dog.” Adam found himself saying. “He’d have acres of land to roam out at my home, as well as kids to play with. Besides, they always neuter dogs that are placed in the shelter. You wouldn’t want that to happen to him, would you? Tucker — that’s his name, right? — deserves better, don’t you think?”

The man, looking slightly relieved, agreed to let Adam have the animal, after they exchanged addresses and phone numbers. Adam invited the boy, along with the rest of his family, to come visit Tucker any time. He took the leash and got the dog into his car. Tucker barely fit into the two-door subcompact, but Adam pushed the passenger seat back as far as it would go, and the dog settled down for the ride.

Billy had hugged the dog one last time before letting Adam take him, and once the dog was ready to go, he stopped crying. The man gave Tucker one last pat on the head, got the boy and himself back into the truck, and they left.

A movement at the window of the shelter’s office betrayed somebody’s interest in what was transpiring in the parking lot with the dog. Adam saluted in the general direction of the building before driving off, crossing Shawnee Creek downtown and heading upstream towards home.

Old Farmhouse Lane

Adam drove along Shawnee Creek on Blue Slate Highway for a couple of miles, and turned onto a narrow road that went past a small older housing development. There were two old farmhouses at the end of the road, a few hundred feet past the development; this was what was left of the Horst family property. Adam’s grandfather had sold the rest of their land when speculators acquiring land for suburban housing gave him an offer that he couldn’t refuse. Farming that land wouldn’t have yielded him one-tenth of what he sold the land for.

The road ended in a circle where the farmhouses and their outbuildings and yards were located. The properties extended in back to a small stream at the base of a slope that steepened as it rose, into bluffs overlooking the valley. After meandering past the farmhouses and into woods on the other side of the lane from the housing development, Muskrat Run emptied into Pine Creek, which eventually emptied into Shawnee Creek.
Adam pulled into a driveway beside the first house, and stopped the car. “Well, big fella, this is home!” Adam told Tucker. The dog stuck his head out the window and began barking excitedly. Adam’s two children, Tim and Maria, came running out of the house to see what all the noise was about, and made a great fuss over Tucker. Adam told them how he had rescued the big dog, omitting the tale of the other events of his day to share with them later.

The kids spent the rest of the day playing with the new dog. They introduced him to the other members of the Horst menagerie — a golden retriever named Blondie, a huge tabby with the improbable name of Fluffy, and a pair of rabbits, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum — and then took him outside to explore the rest of his new territory, where he happily jumped into the run at the back of the yard to cool off. He rolled in the shallow water and then leaped to the bank, shaking water all over the kids. Adam told them to hose off the dog and to dry him with towels before he could go back inside. The kids also needed showers by the time they were done with Tucker. While they were getting cleaned up, Adam sat with the dog on the front porch, shaded from the afternoon sun.

Adam’s wife, Sarah, was an organic gardening specialist at the County’s Agricultural Extension office, who worked with community gardeners and 4H groups. She was mostly called on to help people to grow flowers and landscape plants sustainably, but encouraged folks to grow food plants as well, at every opportunity. Adam had texted her a basic account of his termination, but didn’t follow through with updates on the rest of the day’s events. She had been busy working with gardeners in the city, and he didn’t want to keep disturbing her.

Sarah came home that evening with a new power drill for Adam, as well as an assortment of nuts, bolts, and screws. She deposited them on the front porch, and gave him a hug, eying the big dog with a look of complete mystification. Adam repeated the shelter story to her, and she took it all in stride, determined to be optimistic no matter what it took; so long as they got through it together. When the kids came back out, all clean from their showers, he told them about the loss of his job. He and Sarah assured them that life wouldn’t really change much for them.

Tucker blended into the family well, patiently accompanying Adam as he worked around the property on his various projects, and playing with the kids. He was an intelligent and affectionate companion, although inclined to splash in the run in any kind of weather. Adam tried contacting the family he’d gotten Tucker from several times to let them know how well the dog was doing, but he never did reach them. He hoped that Billy had been able to get another dog, and that his parents and the baby were well.
“““““
The Horst’s house was red brick, built in the German tradition, with two front doors – one side for everyday living and one side for formal occasions. The second floor had several bedrooms, and a bath, while the third floor had been converted into a master bedroom suite.

The neighboring house was very similar to Adam’s home, and in fact both houses had been built by Adam’s great-grandfather and his brother, who shared the farm that they’d inherited from their father. The brother had died without any surviving children, so Adam’s grandfather had inherited the whole property. The second house was now the home of Adam’s Aunt Leslie, and her husband, Ron Sullivan. Ron was a civil engineer who worked for a large firm based in Cedar City. Leslie loved children; she’d been a teacher for special needs children for many years. She had given birth to one child, but had a heart big enough for many more. Their son, Dave, who had been killed while serving overseas in the military, had two children who lived with their mother, Tanya, in Cedar City. Tanya allowed Heather and Zack to spend time with their father’s parents, although she didn’t visit.
“““““
For the rest of that summer and fall, Adam worked at projects that he’d wanted to implement, but had never had the time for. He rarely found time to miss his old job, and often caught himself wondering why he’d ever gone to college in the first place. Of course, he’d never have met Sarah if he’d not gone, so that was just one more proof that everything seemed to happen for a reason.

One of the family’s first goals that fall was to turn the back porch into a greenhouse, capable of keeping them in fresh veggies year-round. Sarah had been wanting one for years, and even had old windows, rescued from garage sales and flea markets, to use. Adam would just need to enclose the areas under the railing, and attach the windows to the porch, she thought. Adam drove upstream along the Shawnee Creek, across Pine Creek, to the nearby general store.

Where the Highway turned to go around the mountain, rather than over it, the road split; the Highway followed Pine Creek, while Creek Road continued to follow Shawnee Creek. Adam drove a few hundred yards up Creek Road and then turned into the parking lot of ‘Hannah’s Mercantile’.

The Mercantile

The Mercantile had been a family business for over 200 years. Wilford Smith had moved from the East Coast with his young family, crossing the Cedar River on one of the first wooden bridges to span that waterway, and fording Pine Creek to reach the western frontier of the time. Along with his wife and four sons, Wilford traveled with a large wagon full of all of the farming equipment and supplies needed to start his own homestead. He and his older sons had cleared land, planted crops, chopped firewood, and built a cabin that summer, getting it finished just in time for the birth of his fifth son, Hiram. Wilford succumbed to a high fever two months later, after he had spent several days in the freezing rain harvesting his last crops to get them through the winter.

Hannah and the boys had survived that winter through careful rationing of the grains, fruits, and vegetables they’d managed to collect that year, and through hunting. When spring came, she sold most of the farming tools and supplies that they had left to other settlers, as well as charging them for beds, feeding and caring for their stock, and feeding them breakfast to send them on their way in the morning. The next year, and in succeeding years, she had the older boys make trips to the east coast, buy supplies and cart them to Shawnee Creek, to sell to the folks travelling through. Their place soon became known as Hannah’s Crossing.

With the help of her boys, and the boys’ families, Hannah was able to survive without having to remarry. The oldest boy, Fordham, married young, bringing his orphaned wife, who was even younger, into the household. Margaret was the only survivor of a fever that raged through a family of pioneers during their second spring at the Crossing, as their train of wagons headed further west. Fordham and Margaret produced one daughter and three sons, who also helped with the family enterprises as soon as they were big enough to handle the work. Daniel, the second son, found a bride, Amelia, among the families that had turned back because of broken wheels, sickness, or for other reasons, settling near the Smiths. They had three sons. The middle son, Tobias, and his wife, Laura, had only two daughters. Samuel and Tabitha had two daughters and four sons, as did Hiram, and his wife, a Native American girl. Oota Dabun, called Deborah by her husband’s people, was from one of last clans of Native Americans in the area.

Most of the early pioneers who wanted to avoid the major migration routes along Cedar River followed Shawnee Creek upstream to Shawnee Pass, where they crossed over Blue Slate Mountain. Blue Slate Highway, built several generations later, followed Pine Creek to Cougar Pass, a lower pass than Shawnee. As internal combustion engines became the power of choice for transportation, roundabout routes which added miles to motorists’ trips became feasible; the faster, more powerful motors shortened travelling times tremendously.

When the first interstate highway through the area was built, it crossed the Shawnee at Cedar City, where the Creek emptied into the Cedar River. It followed the Cedar River to a gentler route into the mountains, rather than climbing into the mountains past Pine Creek. Although the interstate did provide an exit connecting with Blue Slate Highway, it didn’t get much traffic. The folks who still lived at Hannah’s Crossing struggled to survive as their community became more and more a forgotten village.
“““““
Sandra Farley Smith, mother of Jerome Smith, whose widow now ran the Mercantile, was heiress to the Farley Dry Goods fortune. Her ancestor, Jeremiah Farley, had started the business in Cedar City during the civil war, amassing millions through his military procurement contacts; influential friends of the family during the mid-nineteenth century. Farley’s Dry Goods Store had flourished throughout his leadership, and grew during the management of his son, Richard, Sandra’s great-grandfather; by the end of his lifetime, they were operating successful department stores in seven other cities, including the state capital.

It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the Farley stores began to falter. Robert, Sandra’s father, sold the business to a retail corporation headquartered in the state capital, which soon closed the original Farley Store in downtown Cedar City, although some suburban store locations continued to exist.

Sandra grew up on a huge estate near the state capital, went to private schools, and lived a privileged life. Her father bought race horses from the proceeds of selling the business, one of which was a championship-winning filly, White Lightning. Sandra and Mark Smith met at the races and the two became enamored of each other, or rather, Mark became enamored of Sandra’s lifestyle. Sandra was pleased by the attention the handsome young man showed her, and their wedding was the biggest gala of that season for the capital area socialites.

The couple had settled down at the Smith home behind the Mercantile, so that Mark could run the business, but Sandra wasn’t very happy living out in the boondocks, even with a child to raise. To placate her, Robert Farley bought a farm next to the Smith property, installing the retired White Lightning to, hopefully, breed more winning racehorses. Along with the mare, a stallion from good bloodlines, and some goats for companionship, Robert installed a Farley cousin to manage the farm. Despite Robert’s efforts, Sandra continued to escape to her family’s estate as often as possible through the years, especially when Lightning’s progeny proved to be mediocre racers at best.

Mark had trained his only child to manage the Mercantile, handing the reigns over to Jerome as soon as he could. Once that was accomplished, Mark, who had retained his good looks and courtly manner, escaped to the state capital scene, joining his wife at her family’s home and hobnobbing with the movers and shakers there.

Jerome was a competent manager, but was more interested in pursuing other interests than selling general merchandise. He was fascinated by high society, like his father. Jerome married a girl he met at the parochial school he attended — a foundling who lived with an elderly couple who had adopted her — because he thought her naïve enough to allow him to mold her into what he wanted in a wife. Mia bore him one child, a boy they named Ford. After Ford started kindergarten, Mia began helping out at the Mercantile, taking over most of Jerome’s responsibilities while he pursued his own interests. A year later, Jerome met his end at the base of a large tree, in the tangled wreck of his favorite car, a vintage Corvette.

The Mercantile was located on Creek Road, the original road to Shawnee Pass, a quarter mile past the split where Blue Slate Highway turned to follow Pine Creek towards the interstate. The original cabin that Wilford had built on the property still existed, now being used as a small storage area for seasonal items.
“““““
“Hi, Adam.” Mia greeted him, grinning at memories of past conversations with the man who’d just come through the door. “Still wanting to preserve ‘Hannah’s’ for the ages?” Adam had repeatedly tried, without success, to convince Mia to have the Mercantile apply for the State and National Registers of Historic Landmarks. She always laughed at the idea, insisting that they were running a business, not a tourist trap.
“Actually, Mia, I will not be bothering you about that again.” He replied. “Times are still tough, so the County cut my job this time around.”

“What I do need today is some lumber and nails to turn my back porch into a greenhouse for Sarah.” Adam walked back through the store as he was talking, not acknowledging the sympathy Mia tried to express as she struggled to keep up with his long strides. Mia Smith was a dark woman, tiny and unassuming, but no less a matriarch than her late husband’s legendary ancestress.

Adam laughed to himself as he pictured Mia dressed as Hannah in some never-to-be living history enactment — she’d fit the role perfectly, he thought, although she wasn’t even related to the original Hannah, so far as he, or anybody, knew. She helped Adam pick out the right lumber, screws, and other items needed for the project as he described it to her, and then called for Randy Farley, Mark’s second or third cousin — she couldn’t keep the relationships straight, not having any family ties of her own — to load the materials into the store’s truck and follow him home. Over Adam’s objections, she insisted that Randy help unload the supplies as well.

“It’ll do me good to get him out of my way,” she insisted. “He needs something to do to burn off all that excess energy, anyhow.” Mia lightly slapped the slow-moving Randy on his arm, taking the sting out of her comment. Randy was a good worker; a perfectionist who irked her occasionally with his thoroughness when she’d overlooked some detail in her rush to get things done.

“Now, Mia . . .” Randy started to protest, until he saw her grin. “I think I’ll insist on staying to help Adam. He looks like somebody who might appreciate my finer qualities. Don’t expect to see much of me for the next few days.”

Adam denied that he’d need any help, but both Mia and Randy insisted. “Nate can help around the store while I’m helping Adam. He never does anything, anyhow.”
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Randy’s older brother, Nathaniel, now oversaw the horse farm, which had been largely forgotten by the rest of the family. He certainly had time to help Mia, especially since his youngest daughter was taking care of the livestock. Abby had an affinity with animals, and Nate had gladly left the actual farm operations in her capable hands as soon as she finished high school. Her folks had wanted her to attend college, but she refused to go, insisting that her place was at the farm.
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Old Farmhouse Lane

Back at Adam’s house, Adam and Randy unloaded the materials, and began tearing apart the railing on the back porch. It was the first week of school for that year, and after Tim got off the bus down in the development – walking the rest of the way — he began helping too. It wasn’t long before there was a bellow from Ron Sullivan, who had just pulled into his driveway after ending his workday.

“What in tarnation are you doing, Adam?” he demanded to know. “You’re going to ruin your perfectly fine house, if you’re not careful!”

Adam explained his ideas for converting his back porch into a greenhouse while Ron stood listening impatiently. “Adam, you’ve got a good idea there, but you’re going about it all wrong. Let me get my tablet, and I’ll figure out what you should do.”

While Ron calculated on his ipad, Adam, Randy, and Tim watched. In a few minutes, he finished making his plans, wrote a list on a slip of paper, and handed it to Adam, telling him that’s what they really needed to do the project right. He got his van out and followed Randy and Adam back to the Mercantile for the proper materials — the greenhouse would extend well beyond the porch, and they needed cement pilings and four by fours, as well as planking, plywood, and lots more screws, among other things. Randy loaded some of the smaller items into Ron’s van, promising to come out early the next morning with the rest of the supplies, and to help with the work.

With so many helpers, the construction of the greenhouse was soon completed. Adam let Sarah decide what to plant and where. Although he hadn’t ever lived on a working farm, he had learned many things about gardening and agriculture from Sarah, who had a passion for growing things, especially useful plants. She had designed and built a garden in the back yard, with a section of perennial vegetables and fruits, as well as herbs. That fall, they filled the greenhouse with their favorite vegetable plants; tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, kale and other greens, lettuces, scallions, carrots, and radishes; as well as strawberries, and citrus trees to round out their diet. Adam and Sarah were both well-pleased with their increased self-sufficiency, created by the addition of the greenhouse. Together they dug up more of the yard and put in a cover crop, preparing a larger garden for the next growing season.
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Throughout that first winter without his job at the County, Adam spent many hours job-hunting each week as well as working on projects. At least once a week he’d connect with one of his former co-workers or college buddies in efforts to find a job through networking, but he got no results. When he conducted internet searches, or applied directly to companies on their websites, he rarely even received acknowledgement of his application, let alone got an interview. Adam pounded the pavements at business complexes, at suburban shopping centers, and in Cedar City itself, but nobody needed his talents or skills, apparently. As the weeks turned into months, he found himself spending less time actively seeking work and more time working on skills to improve the family’s standard of living without needing more money.
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