Friday, August 29, 2014

Part 67

Yeah, by being alone there is a lot of carp you don't have to deal with.  Like if you are PMSing you don't have to try and pretend you aren't.  If someone else is PMSing you don't have to deal with it because they aren't around.

But when you are alone there are other things you do have to deal with.  Like when there is a bump in the night there is no one else to share the burden of fear with.  And when there are a bunch of bumps in the night - during a snow storm no less - you have to freak the heck out all by yourself.  And when the door to your cabin bursts open and there is only one set of hands to deal with the situation.

It is the most terrified I have ever been.  I've been scared plenty of times.  Being scared isn't bad so long as you manage the fear.  But being scared is not the same thing as being terrified.  I was terrified right after Z-Day.  It lasted a couple of days and then Sherry helped me get my feet under me.  I was scared yes, but more disgusted and disturbed when I figured out what Sammy and John-John had been doing.  I was nearly wet my pants scared during the attack that lead to Sunny's death and then nearly empty of all feeling at Jace's.  Not even the stupid bear had terrified me because it was part of the natural order of things.  But terrified?  That night I was the same fourteen year old girl stuck in that dressing room while the monsters were outside eating her mom.

The storm had been raging for two days.  This was a late January storm and a bad one at that.  I think it is called a Nor'easter but I'm still not sure if that is what that storm was.  The wind was so strong the first day of the storm that it blew ice through the chinking of the cabin, literally pushing some of the chinking into the cabin to make it happen.  I hung sheets and blankets on all of the walls and they shivered and moved during the storm letting me know that a lot of the chinking - that stuff that is stuffed between the logs to fill the gaps - was missing or damaged.  I put it on my to do list and dealt with it the best I could.

The wind didn't just blow from one direction but from this way then that, almost like a hurricane of snow and ice.  I huddled by the stove or in my bed all the time trying to keep frostbite at bay.  I was wearing most of my clothes, including the fur snuggie that I had fashioned.

My supper - a thick soup - was nearly boiling when I took it off the burner but ice cold before I could finish it.  I had tried to light both the stove and the fireplace for more warmth but the wind blew the smoke down the chimney and nearly suffocated me so I put that one out as quickly as I could.  The shutters were closed and tied down to keep them from being ripped open in the storm.

At first when I heard the thumping on the side of the cabin I thought that something had torn loose and was banging against the walls from being caught in the wind.  But the banging did not match up with the rise and fall of the wind speed.  It had its own beat, its own cadence.  Then I thought maybe someone was lost in the storm and was trying to get help ... for all of half a second I thought that because then the thumping came from two then three sides.  Next I thought some fool was out there trying to scare me then thought they weren't just trying, they were succeeding.

I was already arming myself when the banging started on the side of the cabin where the only door was.  I was up and positioning myself - barely feeling the cold - when the cabin door smashed open.  For a moment I was blinded as the wind whipped in and nearly blew the fire out in the stove.  Worse, I hadn't cleaned the fireplace properly and ashes flew around the room, luckily though the cinders were all cold and did nothing but dirty everything.

Of course soot was the least of my worries.  I was facing six people, thinking perhaps it was a raid by one of the other camps or people I didn't know about that were looking for easy pickings and decided to do it under cover of the storm to prevent Singing Waters from finding out.  Then the hairs in my nose curled and it wasn't from the cold.  Puss brains!

My time in the city kicked in and helped me to survive.  I'm pretty sure my guardian angel - that being that I am sure exists but seems to prefer that I handle things as much on my own as possible - lent an unexpected hand.  As I took on the lead attacker a heavy wind tore one of the blankets down from the wall and it fell over three of the puss brains and they fell together, ripping and tearing, as they tried to escape.

The first attacker was down with a crushed skull.  They were moving slower than they might have and I realized they were frozen and suffering from exposure.  Snow blind and skin nearly abraded from any exposed skin they were nevertheless dangerous.  The second attacker tried to take a chunk out of my arm and I screamed in pain.  That is when the terror hit me.  I fought like a wildling, like the stories that Mr. Svenson told of the feral children of the forest.  The thickness of what I was wearing prevented the creature from breaking the skin but it gnawed on my like I was a bone, shaking me so hard that I dropped my bat and had a difficult time getting the pistol out of my pocket.

A third attacker was on me and I barely had time to shoot the second in the eye and then turn the gun so that the next bullet caught the third in the cheek.  The third fell to the floor but was neither dead or still but there wasn't time to finish her off because the three that had been stopped by the blanket were freeing themselves.

Not for long.  I don't even remember picking the bat back up but I came to myself only after the mass under the blanket was flat and mostly unrecognizable.  The third had recovered enough and was on the move without me realizing it.  A white film covered her eyes where the cornea was either frozen or sanded away by the icy storm.  It was blind but the soft tissue of the nose was still intact and it must have found me by smell and sound alone.  It bit into my ankle and if I had thought it hurt when my arm was bitten, this time it felt like someone had thrown acid on my tendon.  It took nearly everything I had left to detach her and dispatch her.

I fought for my life that night in a way I hadn't for what felt like months.  And never had an infected actually latched onto me enough to bite.  The puss brains had been so few and far between I had begun to believe I was safe from them ... at least until it warmed up.  I didn't take into account what had been occurring; had no inkling that people to the south would even do what they did.  When I did find out it was the same feeling I had when I learned that they'd cut the city off to save themselves.

Part 66

Winter in the northern woods is not always kind.  Right after the new year started there was a series of several ferocious storms back to back and some of the Singing Waters men decided to go around to all the camps in the area to see how folks were doing.  I don't think they were doing it just to be nice though; more like Mr. Owen and some of the others liked to stay on top of things and know who might be desperate enough to try something stupid.  That impression came from some things that Mr. Svenson, Jamie, and Shane said afterwards.  They didn't blurt it out, I had to add up the sum total of things.  It made me even more careful not to get or appear dependent on Singing Waters in any way.

Getting through the very deep snow was not easy.  They couldn't take the mules and had to carry all of their supplies in their own packs.  They were gone a week and only one of the camps offered them any sort of hospitality.  The first two camps were making ends meet but just barely so the men opted to not stay and be a burden; of course they didn't know what was coming or they might have at least asked for a place to camp for the night.  The next camp was so standoffish there was no telling how they faired.  They were all but run off with knives and clubs.  The fourth camp was the smallest known camp in the area and they were all dead.

Maybe it is that winter in the northern woods is never kind, some people just learn to live with it.  But if some do, then some don't.  The fourth camp - they never even bothered to name themselves - was made up of three family groups and two cabins of single men.  After the investigating was over with it appears that it was a combination of things that killed everyone.  Some was starvation.  Some was sickness.  But the greatest factor was probably the crazies of cabin fever.

There was no telling how long what had been going on had been happening.  Nobody around here is a CSI even if there was a lab and tech set up for that.  And no one left a convenient note or journal explaining anything.  Nope, the men just ease into camp and start seeing parts of bodies.

At first they thought it had been a puss brain attack.  I'm pretty sure that is the first thing that would have entered my mind if I'd seen what they saw all done over in frozen ice and snow.  Rather than go into the gory details I'll just say the sad story went something like this.  The people got hungry.  Hungry people get crazy.  You get hungry enough and crazy enough and your moral and social boundaries fall down.  Then the weak get picked off first.  They say to themselves, only one to die so that all might live and then we'll never say anything about it again.  It will be our secret.  Only help never arrives and the storms don't stop and there was so little to go around that you work out the pecking order all over again.  One horror leads to another and if you compromise and do one horrible thing what else will you do?  In the end there must have been a really siege battle, everyone hiding so they weren't the low man on the totem pole.  Locked in those cabins it looks like even greater horrors took place.  And in the end they all died, either by their own hand, by nature, or by murder.

It was a sickening job but all of the bodies and bits were put into one of the cabins and stacked however they would fit.  The ground was too frozen to dig graves and even though it was a small camp there were still too many bodies for three men to deal with in the traditional manner.  Then after going through the camp for anything that might be useful (and wasn't possibly contaminated in some way) the men threw all remaining burnables into the cabin and lit it.  After they were sure it was caught they walked away and headed to the next camp.

Those folks apparently had had some suspicion of what was going on having run into the "crazies" a few times before the snow blocked them all in.  Camps five and six have a coalition of sorts going ... one camp is made up primarily of single men of a certain lifestyle choice and the other was made up of more traditional family groups.  They stayed separate in living arrangements but on big jobs they would come together and sometimes share ideas ... which is how the water wheel was started.

It was camp six that offered them hospitality.  They are about as well off in their way as Singing Waters is but not as insular.  For Singing Waters their camp was a lifelong lifestyle choice.  For camp six they are just getting by until the puss brain carp calms down enough for them to move back into a gentler environment.

"You can never go home."  That was Shane, always saying weird things like they are supposed to make sense.

Jamie snorted.  I made the mistake of asking, "What do you mean?" even though I had a pretty good idea.

"I mean you can never go home.  Home might still be there, it might even be home in your head.  But you'll never be able to get back to the exact way it was in your heart.  I tell you, it was hard to be my father's son again when I'd been out on my own for a couple of years."

"You'll always be your father's son," Jamie said with a sigh like he had some inkling what Shane meant but either didn't want to admit it or didn't want to think about it.

"Yeah.  And I don't mind that part.  I just meant that it was hard to go back under his authority 24/7.  It's why I get out as much as I can so long as it makes sense."

I told him, "You don't fight that I can tell."

"No we don't.  Mostly because I choose not to, but Dad doesn't always make that easy to do.  They talk about young men always having to prove themselves.  Well let me tell you, old guys don't exactly cut us young guys too much slack.  They always gotta prove who's in charge.  A couple seem to always be looking for someone to slap down or put in their place.  Drives me nuts.  I mean look at Uncle Daniel; good thing all he has are unattached daughters.  And don't take this the wrong way Jamie, but I don't know how you do it.  Uncle Owen is ... is ..."

When Shane fell silent like he was sorry he'd brought it up Jamie said, "Yeah he is.  But I don't see as there's been a lot of choice for any of us."

Shane added, "Well at least you have Belinda."

A bark of a laugh left Jamie before he could stop it.  "Oh sure I do.  I get 24/7 watch dogs with her too.  And her attitude.  Man, if I had it to do all over again I'm not sure I wouldn't have taken that exit and just dropped her off at her parents like she had wanted me to.  If Dad hadn't been screaming in my ear to get up to the camp as quick as I could with whatever I could bring I might have had some time to think and avoid this mess.  Now she's stuck here not knowing what happened to her family or where they might be and I'm stuck being responsible for her."

He looked at me and said, "You better not carry tales to Uncle Joseph 'cause that's all I need.  He already rides my case over her and Aunt Ava isn't any better."

Pressures, pressures, pressures.  I guess there is some trade off to being alone.  Both sides of the coin has its pros and cons.

Part 65

Because of the dogs affecting the small game I decided to get adventurous with something else as well.  The book I was reading parts of at that time had mentioned that almost all the parts of the cattail were edible and I was wanting something fresh besides meat.

There isn't a whole lot of stuff in the winter compared to what is available in the other three seasons but there is still some stuff and cattails are the most reliable, especially around here where there is enough ponds and shallow water to provide cattails for anyone that wants them.  I gathered a whole basket of the roots by just reaching down into the water and pulling them out of the dirt and muck.  It was a cold and wet job for sure, but the point was that I was hungry and was willing to put up with it.

I headed straight back to the cabin after that and started a fire and warmed up while the roots soaked in some clean water I had in a big plastic dish tub (another find in the trailer).  Then I had to scrub those puppies which meant getting wet again but I did it with rubber dish gloves on in front of the stove which made it less misery inducing than it could have been.  After they were scrubbed clean I separated the rhizomes from the corms.  The rhizomes are the things that look like rope with all these hairy little roots on them.  The corms are the itty bitty bits of new growth that will eventually pop up above the water line.  The corms can be as small as peas in eary winter but the closer to spring it gets the larger the corms get.

The corms can be chopped and eaten as is (raw) or cooked (steaming or frying).  They taste green, kind of like zucchini, is the only thing I can say about them and they satisfied something missing in my diet.

The rhizomes - a fancy name for a type of root - are the starch part of the plant and you use them a lot like you would any other root plant ... potatoes, turnips, carrots, whatever.  You can slice and fry them, bake them, boil and mash them.  I've tried them all sorts of ways but I think my favorite way is to use them in a hash of whatever meat I can catch.

The other cool thing about cattail rhizomes is that you can make a kind of flour out of them ... as in you can make bread.  Not by itself of course cause it doesn't have what Mom called glueten which is a binder of sorts I suppose.  But its what the books call labor intensive and requires a good, clean water source.  You basically boil the rhizomes until you separate the fibrous junk from the soft junk.  Take the fibrous junk out and let the water set until the soft starch settles to the bottom.  Then you have to carefully get as much water out as you can.  I use a ladle and skim off the water like skimming the melted fat off the top a pot of soup.  When you've got a thick slurry left you strain that through a fine cloth to get even more water out.  Let it drip a bit and then put that mush on a pan and dry it out all the way (so it won't sour) and then carefully save it.  When you go to use it you have to grind it up really fine but its not too bad.  I'm still learning - no wheat flour that's for sure - but if you don't mind flat bread my concoctions aren't too bad; more like crackers I guess.

The way I write it sounds like I'm sitting pretty with all the world at my feet.  The truth is there isn't a single day that I don't know real hunger.  Not that "my belly is growling" feeling to let you know you're due your next meal, but the bone deep hunger that tells you that something is missing and if you don't find it you're gonna die.

I guess that is what the puss brains must feel all the time too.  I feel bad for the few that I've seen.  Most people think of them as zombies - and when they get violent and stuff I do too - but they aren't.  Zombies are only in the movies.  And the winter seems to be even more cruel to them than to me and that's saying something.  I watched one try and eat its reflection in frozen pond.  Part of me thought that was hilarious, but the longer I've thought about that the more it has bothered me.

"Getting philosophical in your old age child."

I sighed.  Sometimes Mr. Svenson treated me like I was two years old, or so it felt.  I didn't appreciate being humored when I was serious but I couldn't pop off and be disrespectful back to him.  Instead I kept my cool and said, "I don't know about philosophical but it just bothers me.  I know they are sick.  I know they have something wrong with them.  I know they can't be fixed ... or at least not back to the way they were before they got infected.  But watching that ... that ... puss brain try to eats its own reflection.  It's like a metaphor or something."

"A meta-who?"

I rolled my eyes because Mr. Svenson was a lot smarter than he let on.  "You know what I mean.  Doc - that man I told you about that tried to take care of me back in the city ..."

He grumbled, "Lest said about that creature the better."

"Yeah, well, Doc was his own kind of sick sometimes but he also had some brains when he wasn't turning them to mush with pills.  He didn't come on board until like two months after Moses formed the main body of the group.  I think he was some kind of scientist or researcher or something and just got left behind when the last of those types of people bugged out of the city.  Sometimes he talked like he'd escaped from them rather than gotten left behind."  I shrugged.  "Anywho, regardless of what he was, he was smart.  He had all sorts of theories that made sense and he would also go all 'philosophical' like you are calling it.  One time he and Jerry got into it real bad because Doc kept saying that there had to be some way to harness the puss brains, to make them useful to society.  Jerry popped back that if that had been the case then they should have been able to train and harness all the leeches on welfare all the years its been around.  Round and 'round it went with Doc saying things like people are a product of their environment and if ... blah, blah, blah.  I guess it doesn't really matter what they were fighting about.  Just that puss brain bothered me."

After giving it some thought Mr. Svenson asked, "Why exactly.  If they're sick and broke in the head then we shouldn't expect any different than crazy from the infecteds."

"Are they?" I asked.  "I mean I know they are sick but are they all broke in the head the same way?  I've seen some puss brains doing things up here that I never saw them do in the city ... like use tools to get at something or put on more clothes to stay warm.  I've seen puss brains act different - kinda smarter - when they are together in a horde; like they are working together and have leaders."

"Honey, I've seen animals do many strange things in my travels around the world.  Monkeys using sticks like a tool to dig out termites.  I've seen predators pick out the lame and sick from a herd and strategize how to take it down.  I've seen chickens have a pecking order and the bottom of the order usually winds up dead without the farmer's intervention.  I've seen mother birds play wounded to draw snakes away from their nests.  All those things might seem like the animal is smart but mostly that is just instinct.  What they do may look like humans but they aren't human and never will be."

I thought about that but then said, "But puss brains are human.  They may look and act like zombies sometimes but they are just as alive as you and me."

He nodded.  "True.  But that only makes them accountable and if they pose a threat to you, you better not be wondering how human they are and start wondering if you can put them out of their misery before they kill you and then go on to kill someone else later."

"Oh I'll do what I have to but that doesn't mean I have to like it or feel good about it."

"Ayup.  You just better not be feeling sorry for 'em too much.  A little compassion is all well and good ... too much isn't going to make anything better and could make some things quite  a bit worse.  Both for those that aren't infected and for those that are."

It seems that that is true to some extent.  Mr. Owen has been able to keep their radios running at the camp and they've heard stories that groups are trying to corral puss brains rather than let them be killed.  They feed them like animals in a zoo despite the danger.  Like Mr. Noah said, "It boggles the mind what some people will get up to."

I've even heard that some places are charging those people defending themselves or their families against a puss brain with murder; this happens mainly in the far western enclaves where the infecteds are under control somewhat.  If any of those types knew about me they'd likely put me in the electric chair or in those re-education camps they are trying to develop to fit the puss brains for some type of work that will benefit society.  Shades of some serious eewwwww right there.

Part 64

It was both annoying and comforting that when we reached the cabin the men insisted on looking around to check for any boogey men.  It was annoying because I didn't want to get tangled up with people that might wind up hurting me again; they hadn't wanted me in their camp so they shouldn't be acting like they were trying to take care of me at all.  I didn't like the forked tongue routine because it made me feel like a charity case.  But I was grateful too because despite everything I knew that it would be stupid to not count it as a possible asset to have the Singing Water camp sorta kinda think of me as a person worth something even if I wasn't one of them.

Yeah, I know that doesn't sound like me.  I guess you could say I'm not one for a lot of "self analysis."  A couple of those books from the trailer are those self-helpy kinda books.  And yes, I got just that bored a few times that I wound up reading parts of them.  Some of those romance novels from the trailer also had women analyzing themselves and other people in the story.  I guess you absorb that stuff whether you mean to or not.  Puss brains aren't the only reason you need bleach for your eyes.

Oh be careful little eyes what you see ...  (or in this case read).

As for the rest of it, either Mr. Svenson or Mr. Owen made sure I got some of the stuff that resulted from them scrapping the trailer and truck.  The frig was made up of too much plastic to make a smoker out of - or so said Jamie - so they said I could use it as a cooler if I wanted to.  Even the "stainless steel" was really just fancy plastic.  When the ground thaws a bit I'm going to try digging a "root cellar" under the cabin and putting the cooler in there.  Haven't a clue whether my plan will work on not.  I'm about three miles as the crow flies from the lake that Singing Waters is on and a little over a quarter mile from the creek I get my water from.  The outhouse I use is on a slope on the downside away from both and is one of those fancy things installed by the USFS that is like a mini septic system that you empty from the back.  It was disgusting when I opened that stupid hatch wondering what it was.  Geez, smelled like a puss brain had crawled in there and wallowed around for a good long while.

Hopefully the distance from those three things - creek, outhouse, and lake - means that I'll be able to dig where I want to without hitting the water table but I guess we'll see.

Some of the aluminum I got did make a neat little smoke house though I haven't gotten to use it much.  I will this summer as I am beyond tired of always being hungry.  I use up as much energy hunting as I get calories from eating what I find.

I got two windows and Mrs. Svenson sent a note that they were to be used to make some kind of little green house box.  What I am supposed to plant in the little green house boxes she didn't say though I have some ideas.  Mom would have a snit at the idea that I'm going to try and grow dandelions but I learned to like them after Sherry showed me how to gather and eat them in the city.  And there were some other things too but I haven't found a use for the stuff yet and it sets off to the side of the clearing that has developed around the cabin.

Not every week was exciting like that one.  Most were very ordinary; dull even.  After over a year of "excitement" I enjoyed dull just fine, at least in those early weeks.

Haul water.  Cut wood.  Hunt.  Haul water.  Cut wood.  Hunt.  Haul water ... well, you get the drift.  And in between those things came the snow storms.  During the storms I would stay in the cabin and read and exercise to keep from getting too bored.  I also slept more.  When two storms came back to back it was almost like I was a hibernating bear cub snuggled up in all the covers I could find with the stove going to keep me warm.  I also finally puzzled out I had to pull back a piece on the rifle so that I could use tweezers to wedge the casing out.  Mr. Svenson's only comments were, "Took you long enough" and "Teach you to keep your gun clean won't it".

The days were shorter, at least the number of daylight hours were fewer.  It seemed for a little while that the sun would rise and then decide to get back in bed and set before I'd barely gotten going myself.  That was ok, it kept visitors down to a minimum.

Mr. Svenson got sick from a cold that was going around in camp so I didn't see him for over two weeks.  During that time I learned something all on my own.  I accidentally discovered some edible fresh water mussels in the creek I use for water.  How I discovered them was by being startled by a deer jumping out of the bushes and scaring me and then sliding into the creek up to my elbows.  I felt what I thought were jaggedy rocks at first and went I pulled my hands up out of the icy water to throw the "rock" I realized what it was.  Mom and Dad had liked fish and things like that so I knew what they were and how to cook them.  I'm glad no one saw me dancing a jig to celebrate.

Those mussels were the first time I had done any serious cooking in a long time.  Mom always said that there was cooking to get by and then there was cooking to enjoy it.  Most of the time you tried to enjoy what you were getting by on but sometimes you couldn't.  I'd been cooking to get by.  That night I cooked to enjoy myself.

I only brough back a handful of mussels as I didn't want to strip the creek of a "potential renewable food source".  Another lesson repeated in the books I was reading on how to live off the land.  To be on the cautious side I also did what Mom had always done; I put them in a bucket of the water that I'd processed for drinking.  She said it gave them time to filter out anything they had in them that wasn't appetizing for human consumption.  When it came time to cook the mussels I got into the supplies that I'd found at the trailer.

One of the things in the cabinet was dried minced garlic; like a ton of it so I assume the man must have really liked to get his Italian on or something.  I took some of it and added clean water and juiced the dried stuff back up.  It already wanted to stink up the cabin so I put it in a plastic container that had a tight lid.  After that was complete I heated some of the oil in a skillet with a tight fitting lid then put the garlic in the oil and fried it just enough that it was clear-ish.  Then I dumped in the mussels and some white wine from those bottles I snagged for my own.  It wasn't to drink but experiment with which was what I was doing.

I steamed the mussels in that hot mess until they popped open.  Oh my gosh!  Best thing ever!  The only part that wasn't so good was the smell.  I had to open two of the windows in the cabin and freeze my rear end off to clear the wicked smog out and then about an hour later a buncha dogs show up.  Not nice puppies either but dogs that had gone feral.  I was stuck inside for the rest of the day and all night.

The next day Mr. Carter came by to check on me and caught me scooping all the poop out of the clearning so I wouldn't track it in the cabin and re-stink up the place.  Unfortunately he found it extremely funny.  (He would.)  I had to listen to him hee-hawing for nearly a mile back to camp.  Jamie and Shane came later in the day and after getting their own snickers in started tracking the feral pack.  They said they tried to keep them thinned out because of rabies and the fact that they really are hard on the small game that is the life blood of all the camps in the area.

Trying to hunt that afternoon I had to agree with them.  There wasn't anything to be found and if I hadn't been willing to eat more of the pickled turkey gizzards my stomach would have made it hard to sleep.  Pickled turkey gizzards and cattails ... yum, yum.  Uh ... no.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Part 63

I fell to my knees and pulled the small pistol out of my pocket that I had taken from Jace's belongings and was juggling it while trying to hang onto it.  I had used his rifle on the bear but was still trying to figure out why a casing was jammed making the thing a poorer club than my baseball bat.  Mr. Svenson had decided the jam was a teaching moment and I had decided I didn't have the patience for it when I had another gun I could carry.  My bat was still my constant companion so I also grabbed at it as it started to roll as the trailer rocked again.

"What the heck?!" I nearly yelled.

Jamie motioned for me to be quiet.  There was another large bang and a dent appeared in the inside of the trailer but there was a grunting kind of noise followed by lots of snorting and stomping.  Jamie eased over to that side and looked out a window and he nodded.  He jumped back just in time to fall over as the trailer was rocked again.

"Ok, I'm getting just about tired of this," I heard Jamie mutter angrily.  He was shucking some kind of huge bullet into his rifle when the something went stomping and running off into the trees.

I was breathing heavy and trying to figure out if the puss brains in the area had turned into mutants when Jamie said, "Relax, it was just a buffalo."

Of all the things he could have said I'd never imagined hearing that.  "Excuse me?"

"A buff - a - loooooow.  They must have migrated over this way when the Richardson Camp tried to hunt them and made them stampede.  We think they originally came from the big preserve that replicated the life of the Native Americans in this state.  They started a herd about five years ago and they really multiplied."

"Wait.  Did you say buffalo?"

He stopped checking his rifle and glanced up and then chuckled.  "Yeah.  Yeah I guess it does sound kinda crazy now that you mention it.  I guess we've just all gotten used to it after we ran into them last winter.  Now that they aren't fenced in they come here in the winter where there is some protected fodder for them and over the summer word came to us that they migrate to the grasslands south of here and hang out with what's left of the dairy herds.  Something must have set that one off ... or not; they're all half crazy and will charge for the least reason.  I guess maybe we should have said something before now."

"I guess so," I told him in a snotty voice.  "Anything else I should be on the look out for like ... I don't know ... lions or tigers or Martians?"

He shrugged.  "No lions or tigers but we've had lynx and puma sightings.  The moose population has nearly doubled if the number we count is right so be careful when you get near the boggy land as they can kill you with one kick.  And no Martians, but martens can be wicked mean if you aren't paying attention where you are putting your hands.  Uncle Mason and Uncle Noah tangled with one that stripped a whole rack of drying fish.  And you do not want to get on the bad side of a badger.  You remember what happened that year Todd and I accidentally caught one in our experimental hunting pit trap?"

I rolled my eyes remembering vividly the lecture that Fish & Wildlife had given both of them for hunting in the national forest without a permit and without approved methods and out of season which seemed to be the biggest problem.  Getting the badger out had ultimately required tranquilizing it and pulling it up in a net.

I asked, "Did that Richard whatever group catch a buffalo?"

"Richardson Camp and yes, they brought it down only it wasn't dead, just stunned.  When they went over to check it out it got up and gored two of their men to death.  Uncle Carter brought one down in a pit but that was a pain in the butt to butcher and bring up out of there.  I never want to do that again ever.  We were happy to have the meat but there's got to be a better way and the uncles have been thinking on it ever since."

My mouth watered.  "I'd give a lot for a steak or stew meat or anything like that."

Seriously Jamie said, "You shouldn't say stuff like that.  The wrong person might hear you."

I shrugged understanding what he meant.  "I guess.  Besides, I'd never catch a buffalo and even if by some freak of nature I do I haven't got the faintest idea what I do with it except to yell for your grandfather."

"And he'd come running too.  He thinks a lot of you DeeDee.  I think you remind him and Aunt Ava of the little girl they lost."

I hadn't known that.  "They had a little girl?"

He nodded.  "She would have been older than Dad by a couple of years if she had lived.  Her name was Delores only they called her Dee most of the time.  She drowned one summer.  The story goes she'd made a raft for her doll to float on and the string she had tied to it broke.  She went in after it and got too far from shore or got tangled up in lake weeds or something.  She hadn't been gone long when she was found but there was no resuscitating her.  Its one of the reasons why the swimming rules are so strict in camp.  You have to pass the swim test and get a wrist band or you have to wear a life jacket if you are near the water.  We used to catch flack from some of the guests but ... oh you remember how it was."

"Yeah.  I just never knew why."  Funny the things you find out.  I still don't know how I feel about it.  I'm me, not some lost little girl.  But at the same time I never wanted to disappoint Mr. and Mrs. Svenson.

Jamie said, "If you want to do something, send something back for them special.  Even if it is completely useless it will make them feel like you are thinking of them."

I knew exactly what I could do.  I sent a pair of really nice kitchen shears to Mrs. Svenson instead of taking them like I had meant to and for Mr. Svenson I sent one of those pillows filled with that stuff that you could warm up and then put in the small of your back or around your neck.  I had found that in the storage closet with some spare bath towels.

A while later, the offending drugs and booze packed away or destroyed in a small fire, we were standing outside the trailer when Jamie said, "I really gotta get back.  They'll be worried that something happened to one or the other of us.  This haul will explain things but I still don't like to worry the folks.  Plus, if you really aren't claiming it all, I know the uncles will want to strip the trailer and truck for anything usable like glass and pipes and such."

I heard a crunch and turned fast and had tossed a rock to hit when Jamie spoiled my aim.  "Hey!"

"Ease up.  It's Uncle Noah and Shane."

It took me a moment but I remembered that Shane was Mr. Noah's son and older than Jamie by a few years.  "How do you know?"

"I can tell by the way they walk.  It's ... I don't know ... different.  They're both a little club-footed on the right side so they roll when they take a step."

Jamie whistled and the two men came on in.  "Woulda let you know sooner but we run into some ..."

"Buffalo?" I asked in a foul mood.

"Ayup.  And didn't want to startle any more that might be lurking about.  Take it they were up here too."

Jamie goes, "Ayup."  And then it was like I wasn't even there.  Fine by me was my thought and I took one last look through everything before declaring myself done.  I was stuffing my pack with the linens I had come for and preparing to leave when they finally got back to noticing me.

"Hang on DeeDee and we'll walk back with you."

I shook my head and said, "It's the long way around for you.  I'll be fine.  Besides, look at those clouds."

All three ignored me and after filling their packs and securing what remained followed me all the way back to my cabin.

Part 62

"Why?"  I asked.  "Did I poach on someone else's territory?"

I was worried until he shook his head.  "No.  Finders keepers is the rule with regard to salvaging.  It's what is in those boxes there."

He was pointing to the crates where I had put the liquor and drugs that I hadn't already taken.  The money no one would find unless they went digging under the cabin.

"And?" I asked him giving him a little bit of attitude back over what he'd given me.

He caught it and gave half a smile then turned very serious.  "We had trouble with a lot of stuff like this for a while, even in Singing Waters.  The only thing that stopped it was that it all disappeared and the best liquor that any of the camps can make is a kind of mead and the women pretty much claim most of the honey that gets found or syrup that gets boiled up for cooking.  Uncle Carter plans on experimenting with maple sap this year but he'll have to do it around Dad's rules.  This ... this will throw a monkey into things."

I shrugged.  "So we dump it and no one has to know."


I put my hands on my hips and said, "Why?  Think it is going to get some bear or moose drunk or high?"

He snorted then shook his head.  "I'll let Dad make that decision."

"Why dump it in his lap?"

He opened his mouth then shut it.  Looking at me thoughtfully he said, "It ... it isn't dumping it in his lap.  I've just never kept anything from him.  And he is the leader of our camp.  This stuff is too valuable to toss but it is going to snarl things up somewhat."

"You sound like we are back in the stone ages.  If the drugs and booze are going to cause a problem then destroy them."

"Like I said they could be useful."

"Yeah.  I figured that.  But if ..."

He shook his head and looked at the drugs more thoroughly.  Separating things out into piles, looking at the dates on the bottles.  As he looked I told him, "Or ... divide everything up equally and have the leaders of the six or seven groups ... or however many there are ... come together and let them decide what to do with their share."

He shook his head over that one.  "Only in a perfect world."  He stood up and said, "I'll take some of this stuff to Aunt Paulette - she's the closest thing we've got to a doctor - the rest we'll box up and bury someplace."

"Don't look at me.  I don't want it at the cabin."

"I wouldn't put it there even if you did want it.  You ... you don't know what people can get like when they are forced to do without."

I snorted, "Oh don't I.  I spent a year in the city and saw all sorts of things a heck of a lot worse than people with the DTs.  So forget the drugs.  How about the booze?"

"That's not much better of a problem.  Dad won't be happy but I'll take that stuff to him.  Aunt Paulette might be able to use some of it to sterilize her equipment."

"Not that stuff," I told him.

"And you know this how?"

"Alcohol content isn't high enough.  You need something like Everclear or Vodka or really high test whiskey.  That wine and junk is just for drinking or ... or maybe like I read in a book recently for preserving stuff in."

Carefully he said, "I'll mention it to Dad.  Maybe he won't chew off my leg if I can come up with a way to use it that doesn't involve drinking it."

"Mr. Owen really against liquor that hard?" I asked thinking that I needed to really hide the bottles that I had in the cabin.  I wound up making false bottoms in the footlockers and no one has noticed yet.

Chewing the ends of his mustache for a moment he finally answered, "He wasn't until last year.  Now he has to be so black and white about everything.  There's following the rules.  There's breaking the rules.  You follow the rules you've got no problems.  You break the rules and you got big problems.  Can't be exceptions or favoritism or there are even bigger problems.  Uncle Joe really messed things up by bringing his party crowd friends with him.  Dad has nearly thrown him out twice and one of those just recently when he got caught out paying a couple of women from one of the camps with supplies for ... er ..."

"Oh.  That 'er' will get you in trouble every time."

Since neither one of us was comfortable with the topic we turned away from it and he asked, "How have you been carrying stuff back to the cabin.  And don't tell me you haven't already taken stuff 'cause I see lots of empty space."

Shrugging I told him, "I improvised by making a kind of pull behind sled using a sheet of lumber from the top bunk in the cabin, some rope, and a mountain bike I found with all this other junk.  It was fine while the snow lasted but there's only a couple of inches in places right now.  Besides I've taken most of what I think I want.  Cookware, a couple of dishes, mugs, silverware ... curtains off of some of the windows to make bed curtains with ..."

"Bed curtains?" he asked with a laugh.  "Playing princess are you?"

"No and don't act stupid.  I saw it in a book.  Bed faces the heat source.  Put curtains on the three other sides of the bed.  Heat gets captured and held in.  When you go to bed you pull the last curtain shut trapping that heat and your body heat in.  The bunk above me keeps the heat from floating off to the ceiling and being useless.  I'll split the covers and stuff that are left."

"Naw, go head and take them.  Uncle Joseph and Aunt Ava have been worried you wouldn't have enough.  That's why Uncle Joseph is helping you to work those furs so you can sew them together and have a warm covering for when things get really cold.  That bear skin," and he had to stop and chuckle as everyone apparently now knew the story of the bear and the fruitcake.  "That bear skin will go on the floor by your bed and will keep the cold from coming up through the planks."

I nodded as I knew the plan.  We spent an hour piling things in two different stacks and then he said, "No food left in the place?  Might be why the woman hung herself."

I shrugged.  "You see what there is in those cabinets.  It would have still be good when she was alive but I wouldn't risk touching that stuff now if I were you.  One more freeze and those cans are gonna explode.  There's a few that have already leaked in places."

He shook his head.  "It's criminal to see all this has gone to waste.  People were starving and yet here was a bounty that would have seen them through another couple of weeks anyway."

"Was it that bad over the summer?"

"For us no, for some yes.  A lot of people ate and still starved because of what they were eating.  Rabbit and squirrel - if that's all you're eating - just doesn't have enough fat to keep your brain working.  And fishing only works if you have the equipment."

"What about spear fishing?"

"You know how much work that is?!"

"Better than starving," I told him.

He shook his head.  "When you are only providing for yourself you can get by.  But when you have a family or group depending on you that isn't going to fill too many bellies."

I thought of several questions when there was a noise and then the trailer suddenly rocked.

Part 61

The pull-down aluminum stairs were rusted in the upright position so I had to hike my leg up to climb inside.  I stayed squatted low, prepared to jump back out; a job Moses had given me because he said I was small, young, and limber.  What he didn't say but meant was that I was also expendable, like a canary in a coal mine.  I was useful but replaceable.

My eyes adjusted to the gloom and I saw that  the coast was clear, at least so far.  Lots of dust stirring as I moved about but that was the only thing that appeared to have life.  The center of the trailer was a kitchen/dinette set up; small compared to a house but still serviceable.  Under the grime I could tell the cabinets and countertops were the kind that Mom always dreamed of.  They looked pretty schnazzy which told me that it was one of the more expensive vacation models.  It wasn't all that clean, but I wasn't sure until I looked into the bedroom - which you got to by stepping to the right - that it was the habits of the inhabitants rather than abandonment that got it that way.  Turning to the left I was met with a solid wall of stuff in garbage bags and boxes.  I just stood staring at it then turned away to look around the rest of the trailer a little more.

In the bedroom was where I spotted it.  It looked out of place amongst the cigarette butts and empty liquor bottles.  I picked it up, the binding cracked with age and poor handling, and a piece of paper fell out.

Told Clarence it was bad luck to steal this thing from them old white people.  They was so scart.  But God fourgive me, I had to get my babies away from them kaniballs.  Now my babies are dead an buryd out under them dark scary trees in this hell I followed the wrong man into.  Clarence gave them something so they wud stop crying and carrying on cause there wusn't no tv to watch.  They went to sleep oney they never waked up.  I killd Clarence for what he dun now I do not no what to do.  I cant figger out how to get the trailer off and I cant get the truck out of the mud.  I am stuck forever.  I wisht I was dead.  God come take me like you dun took my babies.

I suppose for a suicide note it wasn't any worse than Jace's.  I don't even know it was a real suicide note when it was written or just someone trying to bleed off bad feelings.  Whatever the note was meant to be, or however long it was written before she did what she did, I felt bad for the woman.  Her suffering must have been real for her to end it the way she did.  And though I knew she was long gone to meet her Creator I still cut down what was left in the rope and then knocked that and what was on the ground together into a single pile.  Didn't do much good, an animal came along and dragged bits and pieces away and made a general mess of what I'd tried to make neat, but at least I tried.

I looked at the sky measuring the amount of daylight I had left and decided it was worth digging through the stuff piled in the back but it took me a while to think with something less than disgust and irritation at wasted time.

Cigarettes - useless to me
Liquor - possibly interesting though there were a lot more empties than there were filled
Prescription pills - for a brief moment I wished for Doc and then shuddered at the thought
Wads of cash - good for toilet paper but little else and even then new bills were scratchy and could hurt unless you took the time to crinkle them up enough to make them soft and pliable.

Then I found some kids clothes, kind of nasty and not just because they'd been packed away for months either, and then some other adult clothes all bagged in the kind of cheap black trash bags that tore if you looked at them the wrong way.  The odor wafting out of the bags was one of bad hygiene and mildew.

I was ready to give up and head to the kitchen when things turned interesting.  My hand touched touched a door knob and by the time I dug the door out that it belonged to I had discovered a small storage room.  The stuff in that closet sized room was much neater.  First off there was real luggage, the expensive kind.  I struggled to pull it out and over the other mess but when I finally opened it I found good men's clothes like the kind you would buy online from specialty clothing stores.  Some of the brand names were Patagonia, Denali, and North Face.  Same for the suitcases of women's clothing I found.  There was also normal stuff like t-shirts, socks, and everyday clothes like my parents would have worn.  There was a shoe rack of sensible shoes for both sexes as well.  Whoever had packed that part of the trailer was practical but able to afford better than wallyworld or tar-jay.

Further in I found other household goods, camping gear, but the thing that really made me smile was two large crates of books ... mostly classics but there were some of the cowboy books Dad enjoyed reading when he had the time.  There was other stuff too but it was the books that I pulled out in the the kitchen area.  I went back for the second crate when the garbage bags decided to fall on me and something raked my face and really hurt.

After I dug myself out I discovered I'd been literally run over by a runaway mountain bike.  It was kid-sized and a little on the scratched up side so I doubted it belonged to the rightful owners of the fifth wheel.  The hard rubber of the bike's tires torn up my nose and cheek so I went scavenging in the kitchen for a rag and realized there was another place that might prove fruitful and interesting.

I just started dumping things into the canvas shopping totes that I found under the sink.  It mostly wasn't food ... the cans and jars that were left bulged and looked dangerous ... but there were some condiments in plastic bottles, two boxes of salt (one regular, one sea), a metal canister set with packets of raw sugar, packets of pepper, and similar items like they'd raided a restuarant, some jugs of cooking oil (only one was rancid and I buried the smelly stuff well away from my cabin to be used only if I got really hard up for some kind of oil lamp), and boxes and boxes of pastas and flavored rice dishes.  I'd never seen so much rice-a-roni and mac-n-cheese in one place since I'd helped to stock the shelves at the Salvation Army Christmas food drive when I was twelve years old.

I couldn't get it all in one trip and had to come back to the spot three days running.  On the last day I ran into Jamie who'd been sent by Mr. Svenson to see why I hadn't been around when he wanted to see me.

I had nearly everything out of the trailer that I thought I wanted except for the spare linens and after debating I finally asked him if he had an hour to hike with me to a site I'd found.

"Found you something interesting have you?" he asked.  At my nod he said, "Must be something good or big if you need my help with it."

"Both.  And it isn't that I need your help.  I just want you to say whether the camp would want what I don't take."

"So what is it?"

"Fifth wheel," I told him after stopping to blow my still sore nose.

"That where you got the shiner from?"

I nodded.  "Something fell on me.  Inside is a mess.  Note left in a Bible seemed to say that the woman involved was sorry that she'd helped to steal it from 'old white people'."


"And what?"

"Where are the people that did the stealing?  Did you kill them?"

I looked at him and glared, especially after I realized he was serious.  "No."


"Well what?"

He stopped and grabbed my arm.  "Look, spit it out.  I know I'm not your favorite person in the world but I'm getting tired of having to drag everything out of you."

A nasty laugh escaped me surprising us both.  I mumbled, "Sorry.  Didn't mean to laugh it is just ... just strange.  Everyone has told me my whole life I talk too much and now here you are suddenly telling me I don't talk enough."

He tilted his head and looked at me.  "Well, I guess you've changed and we are still getting used to it.  But to be honest, so long as we aren't hunting I don't mind it if you want to yack.  If I don't want to listen I'll just tune you out; its what I do with Belinda.  At least if you are talking I don't have to guess what you are getting into."

I held my tongue but just barely.  Instead I explained what I'd found.

"Well, that's something now.  And you sure it hasn't been disturbed?"

"It has ... by me.  There's just stuff in there I don't want but might be useful to someone else.  You look at it, see if it is worth the trouble otherwise I'm just going to shut it up after this next pile and forget about it."

We walked the rest of the way in relative quiet but once we got there and he looked around he said, "Houston, we have us a situation."

Part 60

After that the days fell into a routine of sorts, most of which was taken up with three things ... finding and chopping firewood, bringing in water and processing it so that I could use it without getting sick, and hunting so that I wouldn't starve. Mr. Svenson was a powerhouse of knowledge. If Jace ... well never mind that, suffice it to say that Jace would have done quite a bit of learning from Mr. Svenson as he hadn't known near as much as he thought he had. I said something to that affect and Mr. Svenson smiled and said not to hold it against his memory as he'd done a fairly good job with the time we'd had together and that Jace had been young enough that he hadn't figured out yet that there is always some new to learn in life. "Little Bit, when you stop learning, you start dying. As much as a couple of them fellas from the other groups grate on my nerves, one or two of 'em have had some good ideas and I was happy to get my brain onto something new and worthwhile. One of 'em got a small water wheel up and running and we were able to share in the grinding of acorns for meal."

I hiked all over many acres to keep from hunting any one place over. That is when I could find something to hunt in the first place. It didn't take but a week before I was holding my nose and eating those pickled turkey gizzards to keep from puking from being so hungry. The cold was like an enemy I was constantly doing battle with. It took a lot of energy to stay warm just sitting still and you could add to that all the calories I used hauling wood and water. Once I did finally get handy at running my own trap line and started bringing in animals to eat things got better. The walls of the cabin soon became covered with frames of stretched hides and furs.

The furs, mostly rabbit though there was one memorable event with the bear and the fruitcake that had me struggling to drag it back so that I could ask Mr. Svenson what to do with it, were tanned and stretched according to the old time ways Mr. Svenson had always used. I did all the work as the arthritis in his hands was painful. I suspect the stroke had also left him with some weakness which I confirmed during one conversation with Jamie, who as promised often came with Mr. Svenson.

I did have the occasional run in with the other guys from Singing Waters but I avoided it when I could and when I couldn't avoided getting tangled up in the situations they tried to engineer. That John fellow was the only exception. He seemed to enjoy pestering me until the day he went too far and I took the bat to his privates one good smack and then kicked him in the butt as he was bent over gasping, sending him head first into the creek. I said nothing to anyone else and neither did he so far as I know, but he didn't mess with me again either.

One day about a month after I had taken up residence in the cabin I was wandering the forestry roads looking for deer tracks when I ran upon a thing called a fifth wheel which is a big camper trailer that is towed around by a large truck; the longer the fifth wheel the bigger the truck needed to pull it. It was off deep into the trees and from its condition I knew it had been there a while; the wheels of both the trailer and truck were duried deep ... deeper than the top of the snow and up to their fenders in the ground, with mud caked deep on the sides of both.

I stayed in the trees until I could tell for sure that the ground around the campsite was not disturbed. In fact there was a tree across the hood of the truck and plenty of tree trash on and around everything else as well. There was a broken plastic lawnchair sitting in front of what I could see, after scuffing around in the snow, was a fire ring of sorts though it was an awful small one.

Still unwilling to just open the trailer I scouted around and listened closely for any telltale noise as if I was back in the city listening for puss brains inside an apartment before entering to salvage it. Nothing. It was when I walking around what was supposed to be the back end that I saw what was left hanging from a tree. I wouldn't have known what it was if I hadn't seen similar things in the city and had them explained to me.

It was a hanging. From the overturned plastic lawnchair directly beneath the mess I gathered it had been a willing one. There wasn't much left in the noose but it gave me enough to think about and play the game of looking for clues. No jacket and what was left was pretty decayed so perhaps back in the summer. The hair was matted and longer than I'd think a guy would wear it but it wasn't beyond impossible that it was a guy.

I was no Sherlock Holmes so that was about all I could come up with. I turned to the trailer and cautiously when to the door on the side. It was locked but I'd seen people do stranger things. Carefully I put my screwdriver into the frame and pried out the door. I stayed low to avoid a booby trap; I'd seen a couple of those in the city too.

I let the door come open and then caught it and secured it against the side of the trailer with a bit of string I took from my pocket. You did not want a door slamming shut or open at a bad moment. Trust me on that one. I could tell a story on a guy that had been in our group in the city but it isn't particularly a short one and the ending is sad. Suffice it to say, you just don't want it happening to you.

The inside of the trailer was dark as a cave - all the blinds were drawn - and there was a musty smell that poured out. I let the interior air out and then slowly made my way inside.

Part 59

"They're bad?" I asked after the two older men had left and Jamie had faded into the trees promising to bring me a rabbit or something similar for dinner.

From the man sitting on the tree stump came the words, "As I spoke on before ... some of 'em are, some of 'em are just desperate to survive the same as us, most think we've got more than our fair share of women in our group and think we ought to let them come visit.  And I'm sure there are other jealousies of some type or other."

I could see how uncomfortable he was and frankly I was uncomfortable talking about it to him as well.  This wasn't Lee or the Sheriff or Sherry or anyone else; this was Mr. Svenson and he was the closest thing to a kindly grandfather figure I'd ever had in my life.  It was more than that thought.  Mr. Svenson was from a generation and a time where there were some things you just didn't discuss with the opposite sex.  He was a little more wordly having spent many years working in a fishing fleet but there was still a reserve to him that I didn't want to offend.

"Mr. Svenson ... how likely are these other people to ... to see me as ... well ... easy pickings."

He shook his head.  "It makes my heart hurt to even have to discuss this with you Child but you need to know the truth so you can gird yourself against it.  I would say most of the men and boys that find out about you will just come sniffing around wanting to try and catch your attention but they won't be violent about it.  Those you'll need to be careful not to lead on lest they start fighting amongst themselves.  The other half ... well ... a goodly portion of them will do more than sniff and might try and intimidate you into picking them but even that a smart young woman can handle with planning and a little defensive force.  But there are some that you won't be able to make take no for an answer and for those you'll need to be prepared ..."

He stopped and I finished for him.  "It's ok Mr. Svenson.  I know what I need to be prepared to do.  It's not like I haven't had to deal with it before but so far my guardian angel has always been up to the task."  The last I said to make him feel better not because I necessarily totally believed it.  Oh I believed in guardian angels.  I also believe sometimes they step back and let you learn a lesson the hard way.

He was silent a moment and then decided that the subject was best put away.  Then he turned and asked, "Now were you telling a story about learning how to hunt?"

"No sir.  The young man I told you of ... the ... the one that ..."

"Uh hmm?"

With one sound he gave me a way to go on and I was grateful.  "Anyway, he taught me.  I just need to practice it more.  I'm only hit or miss when it comes to the best place to put the traps and snares.  I've got a book I mean to read with some pointers but I also need to get out and look around to see the ... the ... er ... the lay of the land."

He nodded.  "Yes you do.  But just to be safe, take this right quick before any of the boys see."

He pushed a bag into my hand and then towards my coat.  I tucked it in the inside pocket quickly and told him, "Mr. Svenson, you're gonna get in trouble ..."  I said it in the same way I used to tell him when he was giving me candy before meals knowing Mom would have flipped a switch.  Usually they were just lemon drops or fire balls and the memory made me want that taste pretty bad.

Smiling at his own memories Mr. Svenson said, "Humph.  I do my own bit of hunting and smoking to add to Ava's pantry so I can do as I please with it.  We had an abundance of trout this year with the visitors around here being so few and far between.  Also put in a bit of maple candy from Ava.  She remembered how partial you were to it."

I tried very hard not to tear up.  I didn't want to feel anything and he was making me feel.  Mr. Svenson patted my shoulder as if he understood and asked his next question.  "What about skinning?  You know what to do with them?"

"Wellllll ... I know how to do the skinning part but ... but he never said anything about saving the fur for anything.  I saw in a book it can be done.  And I remember you used to have these frames tacked to the outside of the mule shed with rabbit and squirrel furs on them. But ... er ... it said in the book I ... uh ... needed brains to tan them with.  I'm not too sure of the process."

Mr. Svenson tried not to smile at my slightly green tinge and told me, "Well ... if you've a mind to learn I've a mind to teach ya.  The girls usually leave that sort of thing to the men ... or the boys we're bringing along ... but with you being on your own ... as they say 'waste not want not.'"

And with that the three other men brought several armfuls of smallwood and deposited it in the lean to, declaring the creek fit to draw from, and Jamie handing me a large hare that he said had practically run into them when they picked up a pile of brush and he'd only had to grab him by the ears.  Mr. Owen said, "Dad, we best be getting back.  Might be some that miss us."

I bit my lip to keep from blurting out what I'd told Mr. Svenson earlier.  He must have sensed it and patted my shoulder.  "Well, I suppose it is as good a time as any.  And we need to speak on something on the way."  He turned to me and with a stern look said, "You be sensible with your wandering.  We need to work us some signals that tells me when and the direction you took in case I come and you're not about."

I nodded and an unwilling warm spark meandered through my chest.  It had been a while since someone cared enough to want to know where I was so they wouldn't worry.  The three older men started to walk but Jamie held back a moment and then asked me, "Do you have a gun?"

I looked at him ferociously and said, "None of your business."

"Kinda is.  I'll come with Uncle Joseph when I can though the work rosters most likely won't always allow it.  But if you have one you need to keep it with you.  Uncle ... look ... he just ain't as young as he thinks he is."  At my concerned look he added, "Today is a good day.  But who knows about tomorrow.  He had what Aunt Paulette thinks was a small stroke last spring.  He's come back a lot better than anyone expected at the time but ... no one wants to see him go down again.  Got it?"

Irritated told him, "Got it.  I'm supposed to protect him but let him think he is protecting me.  Is that it?"

Jamie looked perturbed at my sudden anger and said, "Close enough."  He glanced around and then hunched his shoulders.  "This sucks mightily.  You're Todd's little sister.  You shouldn't be out here like this."

Cutting him some slack so he would just go away and let me think I told him, "Well he's not here.  In case you're wondering ..."

"No," he said quickly.  "I heard what you told Uncle Joseph."

I nodded.  "Well, I've been in tighter spots than this and a lot worse off.  This is the first real place I've had to live in since Z-Day.  At least here I can build something and can stop running for a while."

"For a while?  You don't mean to stay?"

I shrugged, "Who the heck knows what is coming tomorrow?  For now I want to stay but
what I want and what gets handed to me ... they just might not be the same thing."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Part 58

The two men in question had been coming up the trail - aparently the rock hitting the hard oak had sounded close to a gunshot from their position - as I turned and Mr. Carter was chuckling.  "Well Brother, she's got you there."

I sighed, uncomfortable with someone thinking that I was trying to get something over on an adult.  Mr. Owen must have read my face and said, "Knock it off Carter.  Girl has a brain in her head I'm thankful to see.  And yes, I've got a few more questions."  The last sentence was directed at me.

We all walked back toward the cabin and I was surprised to see a lot more wood than I had expected.  "Benny brought the mules up here with the cuttings from that tree that fell across the road.  You remember Benny?"

That was just politeness I suppose.  Benny was "special" and the family had always looked out for him.  He was the son of one of the regular camp workers.  He was about my age but had been born really sick with something and forever afterwards was what you would call learning disabled though that was just something else that was polite to say.  He rarely talked and when he did it didn't always make sense unless you were used to the way he associated things.  People barely existed for him, only some animals, but he'd developed a passion for the camp mules when we were very little and was most happy when he was taking care of them.  The mules in turn took care of Benny.  I was ten the summer a rabid bear showed up in camp.  Those mules, as terrified as they were, kept circling Benny and in general making a horrible mess as they kicked out at the bear until someone shot it dead.

Back to the then present I responded to Mr. Owen, "Yes sir.  What were your questions?"  He gave me a stern look.  "I don't mean to be rude Mr. Owen but ... I'm not the girl I was.  I'd rather you just tell me what you want to know, give me a chance to tell you, and then find out if you are going to run me off or not.  If you are I need to make plans and figure things out.  If you aren't I still have plans to work out and I need to start practicing how to fish."

All the men, Jamie included, gave me various searching looks like they weren't sure what to make of me or how to take me.  In the end Mr. Svenson reached over and patted my shoulder and then went to sit on a tree stump left over from the cutting of a tree from who knows how many seasons ago.  He looked tired and a lot older than I remember.  My eyes followed him and when he was out of earshot - his hearing not being what it used to be which was why Jamie was able to sneak up on him - I asked, "Is he OK?"

"Age and cantankerousness.  And Aunt Ava being under the weather doesn't help.  She sent him out here to see you hoping you'd perk him up."

I sighed.  "I don't have much perk left but what I've got he can have."

"About that, I have to admit that I find it strange that a young girl has made it this far on her own."

I gave an even more abbreviated version of my story, leaving it up to Mr. Svenson to fill the rest in, and then said, "However I got here, I'm here.  I made a mistake assuming that I could just get here and everything would be there for me to settle into.  I guess I wanted it to be so much that I didn't plan for it not being.  But that's changing.  I just need to know if you're gonna run me off."

Mr. Owen shook his head.  "Where would you go?  Probably into a cauldron of trouble.  We don't have any room at the camp but I won't let anyone run you off from here as long as you don't bring trouble down on us."

I made a face so he'd see how much I meant it when I said, "Last thing I want is trouble.  I've had enough and don't want no more."

"Good," he said nodding.  "But not wanting any and avoiding it isn't necessarily the same thing."

"Mr. Svenson kinda talked like there were other people around.  Are they puss brains?"

"By puss brains you mean the infected folks?"  At my nod he said, "No, though there are some wandering about even now so watch your step.  We do what we can to spot them when they come up this way and send them on to the Maker.  You should have some relief from that worry in a couple of weeks.  Last winter we saw that by the middle of December the constant cold pretty much sends them into a ... well ... it looks a little like hibernation though a lot of them die during it for lack of whatever it is they need to keep 'em going."  He sighed again.  "No, the kind of trouble I'm speaking of is the kind caused by some of the other groups in the area."

"So there are other people around here."

He nodded.  "About six groups left.  They leave us alone for the most part but every so often they come around wanting something or other either by trade or by theft.  Dad put you at the furthest point away from the other groups but they could still come around the other side of the lake and run up on you.  You definitely don't want what kind of trouble that could turn into.  Now stay put while Carter and I go make sure that the creek is fit and not been contaminated."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Part 57

Still hefting my bat I told him, "People die every day.  One day I'll die.  But since you aren't pointing that rifle you are carrying yet I might as well fight before I die."

Mr. Svenson snapped, "That's enough.  Jamie, what the hell do you think you're doing out here slinking around like a weasel?"

"Dad told me to keep an eye on you," he said mildly, answering the older man that was fast beginning to look like an irritated badger.

Suddenly I recognized the young man "slinking around" and I winced.  He wasn't my favorite person in the world but then again if he'd been under orders from Mr. Owen he didn't deserve the "dressing down" that Mr. Svenson was gonna deliver.  "Run.  Run now Jamie.  He's gonna blow."

Jamie was Mr. Owen's only child by his first wife.  She ran off when she couldn't hack the lifestyle he was devoted to, leaving Jamie behind.  He was a cross between Mr. Owen's brains and Mr. Carter's personality.  Being one of the older kids I'd never had much to do with him because he had a habit of making me feel and look stupid when I got too nosey about wanting to join that crowd.

My words only caused Mr. Svenson to growl deep in his throat and cross his arms in front of his swelling chest.  "Yeah boy ... run ... 'cause I'm about to blow."

I saw a smile split the beard and he said, "I'll take my chances with you, thanks anyway.  You I might stand a chance with.  Dad I know will take my head off if I don't make sure you are ok.  He loves you too much and doesn't know whether to trust her yet or not even if she was one of your summer favorites."  He punctuated "her" with a toss of his head in my general direction.

I leaned against a tree to show how little I cared about what his words meant and told him, "Your father doesn't need to care either way.  Looks like it'll be better if we all just leave each other alone.  That's the way it was in the city sometimes.  No matter what or why, sometimes two groups just couldn't help but rub each other the wrong way."

The young man tried to rub salt in a wound that didn't exist and said, "You're just as puny as you ever were and will starve if people don't look after you."

Jamie and Toddie had always gotten along though I do say that Toddie was the wilder of the two.  It was a friendship both families had encouraged - they even skyped and emailed during the off seasons and when they went to college - as both of them were the type that were too smart for their own good on many occasions but together they got so busy doing interesting things that they stayed out of trouble.  Mostly anyway.

"Small I still am and will always be but puny I am not."  Then I performed a trick that I had perfected in the city but hadn't done in a while.  I hadn't been as lazy as I'd made out as I'd been leaning against the tree to hide my hand going into my pocket.  I tossed a stone really fast and hit it with the bat so that it shot right at where Jamie had been standing.  He ducked and the stone took off a deep chunk of bark from the tree he'd been in front of.

He looked at the tree trunk then at me, then at the tree trunk again and said is a suddenly respectful tone, "OK, that was unexpected."


He grinned again and said, "Maybe you can show Belinda how to do that."

When I looked at Mr. Svenson his mouth gave a twist and said, "That girlfriend of his that he brought from school.  Came here a vegatarianist or some such.  Biggest bunch a silliness I've every seen.  Won't even eat fish or help to cook or clean the meat that others bring in.  Won't wear fur or leather.  Makes a lot of work for the rest of the women and then she wants to have a bowl of something made completely separate from anything that has touched meat.  If she didn't do most of it for herself, and learned to shut her mouth about it, she'd been out of here before last winter."

Jamie sighed and said, "I'm working on it Uncle Joseph.  She's coming around.  It's just part of her religion."

"Yeah, and that's another thing.  How you ever got hooked up with a ... a what's its name ... and expected the family to look the other way ..."

Jamie shrugged and I could see it was an old argument ... and one I had absolutely no intention of getting involved in.

"Where you going Little Bit?" Mr. Svenson asked when I started walking away.

"To see if Mr. Owen is tired of 'watching' Mr. Carter and is ready for you all to go or if he has more questions he wants you to ask me."

Part 56

Mr. Svenson said, "They want your story before they'll go any further than this bit of wood."

Carefully I told him, "I'm not looking for charity Mr. Svenson.  I honestly didn't think that there would be anyone here and so I'm not expecting help.  Like I told Mr. Owen, that comes with all sorts of strings ... expectations and that sort of thing.  I had to work long and hard not to turn into some kind of protected girl that had to ... er ..."

Mr. Svenson sighed and stroked his beard.  "I can imagine what that 'er' means.  Have a young woman in camp that ... has had a problem with 'er' herself.  About Jolene's age."

Jolene was Mr. Owen's step daughter and was about Toddie's age, or how old he would have been.  I nodded.  Trying not to sound ridiculous but mature at the same time I told him, "A lot of that going on in the world right now."

"Humph," he answered.  "A lot of that going on in the world before, just wasn't out in the open like it is nowadays.  Some of the things I've seen in the ports of call I made over my life ..."  He trailed off shaking his head.  "But you're getting me off track Little Bit.  Seems like we're going to have to make an exchange here.  You tell me your story and I'll tell you how things stand around here."

I nodded.  "Well I suppose the only way to tell it is if I start at the beginning."  And I did with that first day and carried on up until finding Singing Waters occupied.  It was all the truth that I told him, just not all of the truth."

Mr. Svenson gave me a shrewd look and said, "I'm thinking you've left quite a bit out."

I shrugged and told him, "Nothing that will bring any harm to anyone.  Just ... there are things that ... that ... don't need to be brought up.  They happened.  I lived.  You got my story from me.  I just don't want to wring out every drop of blood all over again."

He nodded and allowed, "Probably the way it is going to have to be.  It'd be better if you could talk to someone to help but if you've already got a scab growing over it, no sense in picking at it all over again and making a mess."

After a quiet moment while the old man thought I asked, "Was it bad here?"

He shook his head.  "Not at first.  Not too many people live this far north year round, at least nothing like you'd find in the cities.  When supplies got scarce a lot of the folks that did live here let the government talk them into heading to them refugee camps ... safety in numbers, food, heat, lots of reasons, or maybe excuses depending on how you look at them.  Reckon a lot of people are sorry about that.  On the other hand, all they would have done up here was starve.  People just didn't put back like they used to.  If Ava and I hadn't come up to camp and brought the summer's supplies with us the family would have been in tough shape.  Owen's bunch was smart and brought everything they could but not all the boys and their families were so thoughtful.  And some of 'em, like my namesake Joe, brought friends that have been as much a hindrance as they have been a help.  It was a few months into it that we started getting people up this way.  Unfortunately a lot of the people that came out this way didn't have a clue how to survive off the land, hunt, or anything else for that matter including take care of the waste they created.  It was inevitable the Disease would crop up.  It took the first winter to finally whittle the infecteds down to where we weren't baricaded in camp most of the time.  Lost a lot over the winter months as well ... cold, starvation, cabin fever.  Some ain't equipped mentally to live thisaway for any length of time.  Vacation is a whole 'nother kettle of fish from living like this full time.  Since the spring groups have melded together and what is here is likely to stay here except for the odd small group of 'em that want to go 'salvaging' like Mad Max or go to see what the government is giving away for free."

I could have told him the government wasn't giving away anything for free but I was still stuck on something he had mentioned.  "Joe?  He's the youngest of the brothers isn't he?  The one you always called Hard Head?"

"Sure is.  Boy turned 30 a few months back and still ain't no closer to being a man than he was when he turned 20.  You'd think with all that is going on he'd ... well ..."  He stopped and shook his head.

Carefully I asked, "Joe ... wouldn't happen to have a friend named ... John would he?"  I was quiet and looking at my feet.

Mr. Svenson acted like he was stretching out muscles and bones that were too old to be sitting on cold front stoops and said, "Need to work out this rhumatizz.  Come walk with your ol' story teller."

He called over to Mr. Owen that he was going to show me the nearby creek that I could get water from if I broke the ice on it and we took off slowly through the trees.  After we had gone several yards he asked in a very different voice that had an edge of hardness to it, "How you come to know such a thing about Joe and John."

"The ... the wind carried some voices up to the cabin the first night I was here.  I heard the name John ... and some things he said ... but not the name of the other though I know he's one of the brothers because he called Owen and Carter that."

"And what did this wind carry to you that makes you so fidgety?"

Deciding it was time I told him, "John mentioned a thing that I think you should know for sure and maybe Owen if you think so ... only I'm not too sure I want it known where it comes from in case ... well, just in case they want to shoot the messenger."

"And that is?"

"This John didn't seem too happy with his position in the camp, didn't like how ... how the girls were kept away from him and some of the other men ... and ... and how maybe one day there would be more of them than there was the family and that they wouldn't be the ones being kicked out ... like some guy named Gary had been."

Mr. Svenson stopped and like some older men do seemed to be trying to get ahold of his temper since it would be impolite to say the kind of things they'd like to say before someone they considered little more than a girl child.  His mouth worked and I could see his hands working into fists inside his mittens.  Finally he said, "Well now, that's something all right."

I heard a twig snap and spun with my bat raised.  A man stepped from behind a bush and said, "You're fast but you'd never make it if I'd been out to shoot you."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Part 55

I nearly gave Mr. Swenson and the two men with him a heart attack when I came out of the trees with my bat and shouted, "Hey!  That's mine!"

A man with a very bushy beard growled at me and said, "That's a good way to get shot you little fool."

"A good way to get shot is to take stuff that doesn't belong to you."  And before they could give me a snappy comeback I told them, "At least when you don't have someone watching your back while you do it."

Mr. Svenson leaned on the porch railing and started chuckling, then he was laughing, then he was just about to bust a gut.  I didn't see what was so funny.  Neither did bushy beard but the other guy was wiping his mouth with a faded blue bandana which gave me the idea he was trying really hard not to smile.

Mr. Svenson finally stopped and moaned as he sat down on one of the stairs.  "Oh Girly, you've grown into a firecracker.  Reminds me of my Ava.  She would have just been about your age when I took notice of her the first time I came in off the boat."  He wiped his eyes and blew his nose.

When the trumpeting was over with I asked, "How is Mrs. Svenson?  You said her lumbago was starting to act up."

He nodded, "Laid up with it as we speak though Carter's bride has got some god-awful goop brewing to help her get the kinks out.  She sends her love and says when its time she'll try and arrange to see you."

I tried to keep my face blank but bushy beard man's scowl was menacing.  To him I said, "I can't tell who is under all that fur.  Are you Mr. Owen or Mr. Carter."

"Owen you infernal brat.  Now come here and get a proper hug."

"Yeah right.  Not with you looking like you want to paddle me first."

The other man snickered again but tried to look away.  Knowing it could only be his twin I said to the other one, "Hello Mr. Carter."

"Hello DeeDee," he said still snickering a little bit.  Owen was built like a bear ... like Mr. Svenson and that side of his family.  Mr. Carter, though only half a minute younger that his twin, was his complete opposite all the way down to his personality.  Mr. Carter liked a good laugh, sometimes too much so just like Mr. Owen could be too gruff and serious.

I stood there waiting to find out what they wanted and Mr. Svenson took a long look at me and then sighed.  "Where's my little noisy bumble bee?"

Trying not to hurt the old man's feelings I said, "Oh, she's around.  She just tries to have more sense than she used to.  But it's taken quite a bit to get her this way."  Mr. Svenson nodded.  Mr. Owen suddenly got an interested look on his face, one that said he hadn't expected to.  And Mr. Carter mentioned that he might as well go back to chopping wood if I was going to get boring.

"And why are you chopping MY wood?"

Mr. Carter smiled and shook his head before saying, "Because I drew short straw of the day and am stuck with the scut work.  And today's scut work is getting you some wood so Uncle Joseph here will stop pestering me about it."  I never had decided whether I had liked Mr. Carter or not.  Part of me wanted to but Dad told me to mind my p's and q's around him because he was kinda wild and was always leading the kids in the Durant family into trouble of one sort or another and he liked most of the family too much to want to get into a ruckus with them over an incident if it could be avoided by using some ordinary caution.

I looked at Mr. Svenson and he reminded me, "I told you I'd see you'd get some wood Child."

"Yes sir.  I just didn't figure you'd take a whip and chair to the grown ups to get it done.  Besides, I'm already chopping wood."

"So I see.  Glad to see you've turned into a go-getter like your mother.  Now, have you eaten today?"

That brought a glower from Mr. Owen and I decided I wasn't going to get drawn into their family politics so I told him, "Yes sir."  He hiked an bushy eyebrow up to edge of his tobaggan cap so I explained, "Broth with dried chives in it and pickled eggs.  Not great but better than starving and more than alot of people I know are probably eating.  And speaking of, I'm not a charity case, what do I owe you for help with the wood?"

"Humph!" I'd whoopsed and offended someone I had no business offending.

Mr. Owen looked at his uncle's sour face and then turned to me and said seriously, "Nothing this time DeeDee Phillips.  I won't even take exception to you throwing our Christian duty back in our face."

"If it's Christian duty then I'll accept with thanks Mr. Owen," I told him remembering how religious some of the family was.  "But I've found that even that duty some people like to put strings on to.  I'm not saying you or your family but people aren't all who they used to be and ... and I've learned to not ... not take so much for granted in the last little while."

Mr. Owen gave me a searching look and then nodded.  "As an apology that was a fine one."  He sighed.  "And you're right to be cautious girl.  Even here there are some, even some in our own group, that prefer to go their own way."

I thought about that, nearly said something about what I'd heard that first night though I still couldn't say who the other Durant brother was that had been with the man since there were several.  In case it was Carter - and I couldn't tell at all - I decided to keep that to myself, at least for a bit.  What I did ask was, "You make it sound like Singing Waters people aren't the only ones around."

Mr. Owen looked at his uncle uncomfortably then said, "I'll leave you to it Uncle Joseph.  I want to see what Carter is up to."

My uh-oh meter spiked.  Mr. Svenson patted the stair beside him and I sat down cautiously waiting for the hammer to fall.