I’ll admit I worried about whether Asa would show or if I had somehow been set up but show he did, but he wasn’t in a particularly good mood. He had a horse and two pack mules loaded down.
“Let’s get out of here. We can ride tandem for a while but as soon as we get out of the valley I’ll need to walk.”
I shook my head and said, “I’ll walk. I’m not used to riding anyway.” He tried to say something but I stopped him. “I’m not kidding Asa, I bet I can even jog longer than you can. I might have been a captive of SEPH but I kept myself in top shape. It was the one thing that they encourage in all of us. I think it had something to do with making us reach our genetic potential or something like that.”
He looked at my feet. “How are those boots holding up?”
“I should have thought to get you some different ones. How did you get clothes before?”
As we started off I explained how I survived in the city in a little more detail. I watched some of the stiffness go out of his shoulders and even noticed that when he settled down the horse he was riding seemed to get less nervous. I wanted to ask what had him so bent earlier but wasn’t certain whether to bring it up or not. We’d gone about two and a half miles when there was a hawk’s cry from up ahead.
I looked at Asa who had gone tense again. “You know, I know I’m not from around here but I don’t think hawks hang around in bushes.”
I recognized the rusty sounding laugh that came in response to my comment right away. “Carmine? That’s a real good way to find out if Rob can dig a ball bearing out of your head without scrambling your brain.”
That made him laugh harder. By contrast Asa looked even more aggravated. Carmine came out of the bushes and said, “Sorry I wasn’t there Asa … but you know the score, I warned you last night.”
He nodded. “Rotten way to do business,” he complained. “Trotting out that moth eaten transport and claiming that it was part of the deal when everyone knew good and well it wasn’t. There’s not enough left of that thing to make it worth anyone’s effort. Then refusing to pay me my whole fee because I wouldn’t replace some other work for the transport. Dumb. I’m the best out here. They know it, everyone knows it … I know it. Do they not want me to come back anymore?”
Carmine sighed. “They’re testing you … probably Hendrick’s idea. And they call me stupid and heavy handed. When word gets around Gill is going to have to smooth the waters.”
“What about you?” I asked.
He grinned a shark’s grin. “Not my pay grade Gurl. Since it ain’t me mucking up the water, it ain’t going to be me smoothing it over. Gill will figure it out as soon as he sees how other people react to it. They’ll get suspicious that maybe the same thing will happen to them. Then Gill will call and try and smooth things over. You let him. Might be in your best interest.”
Asa’s pride had been hurt and he wasn’t ready to hear Carmine but I did. “Wonder what would happen if other settlements that Gill trades with find out about this stunt.”
Carmine gave me a hard look. “Don’t start trouble.”
“Not unless I have to.”
I was drawing a line in the sand. Carmine wanted me … and Asa … to trust him. For what purpose I didn’t know but I’d learned young and fast that trust either went both ways or it didn’t really exist. “No one wants trouble any less than I do Carmine … but no one is more capable of starting it either. I did not get myself free of SEPH and their plans for my future only to find myself under the thumb of someone looking to be a benevolent dictator. I thought Gill was a Constitutionalist but I’m not so sure anymore.”
Carmine sighed, “He is. But he also has a bad habit of thinking he knows what is best for everyone … and the two are in conflict more often than not lately.”
Asa spoke, surprising me with his answer. “Carmine’s right. If Gill calls, I’ll listen but he better plan on waiting a while. I’m an independent contractor, not his towel boy. There’s other markets than Gill’s settlement and other trading posts besides the one on main street.”
“There’s other tech guys too,” Carmine said.
Asa nodded, “Sure there are … but none of them are as good as me.”
Carmine smiled, “Well, since I’m an honest man I’ll give you that point.” Asa relaxed and I realized for all his caution he really like Carmine … and that Carmine liked Asa. “So anyway, seems that Gurl never got any kind of reward for helping to bring home Rosie. Don’t like that, gives a bad impression and sets up hard feelings.”
I tried to stop him. “I didn’t do it to get a reward … besides I didn’t do it anyway. I was just there. I just …”
Totally ignoring me and continuing to look at Asa which was beginning to annoy me he said, “So I think under the circumstances that a horse isn’t an unreasonable reward. The tack is out of my personal gear so I’d like it back next time you are around.”
Asa swallowed it. I wasn’t sure what Carmine was up to but it was something. On the other hand … “Carmine? Isn’t this going to make it look like you are choosing sides?”
He shrugged, “Yeah. My side. And when Gill settles down he’ll see that it was the right thing to do. And even if he doesn’t that’s too bad because it is. A single meal where their daughters didn’t do anything but get snarky isn’t what Rob and Carlene should have done. Neither one even brought it up afterwards … too wrapped up in their own lives right now which is a mistake we can’t afford with as fast as Gill is pushing his plan. And for sure they didn’t exactly have people lining up to go after Rosie so they should have done something for the ones that did. If nothing else as an example for others to follow.”
“But that can cut both ways,” I told him. “You don’t want to have to get into the habit of paying people to do the right thing.”
He sighed. “True enough, but this time they should have. Now stop chewing it to pieces and get on the dat burn horse. You make my ears hurt with all the noise you make.”
My mouth nearly fell open. That had to have been the first time anyone EVER told me I talked too much.
Asa forestalled any other argument I would have made when he said, “Much obliged Carmine. I’ll call you at some point to meet and give you the tack.”
Casually Carmine said, “Just bring it next time you’re around. It’s not like I can ride more than one saddle at a time.”
I noticed Asa’s face go hard with anger. Carmine glanced at me and I knew what he wanted me to do. But knowing what he wanted and me judging it was the right thing to do when and if it came around weren’t necessarily going to be the same thing. I’d have to see.
By the time we made camp I was cursing Carmine’s “generosity.” Asa smiled and asked, “Little sore?”
I didn’t say anything but I didn’t let him know how irritating his good humor was either. If we were going to make this work it would take both of us doing what we could. Me getting snarky, though temporarily satisfying, wouldn’t produce any long term benefit.
Still Asa must have sensed something. “I didn’t mean anything bad by it.”
He had puppy dog eyes for Pete’s sake. I sighed. “I didn’t say you did Asa. This is just a lot of new for me to deal with. I warned you I could be prickly. Talk if you want to, it doesn’t bother me, just please don’t ask me to keep up and talk all the time too.”
He smiled and was satisfied, “Sure, I can see … I mean I can understand that.” Then he got serious. “This has been the easy part of the trail. Starting tomorrow it gets rougher. The day after parts of the trail are little more than goat tracks. Even before the war there weren’t really any homes to speak of back in that area.”
That got my curiosity up and took my mind off of my tender parts. “So you’ve built your place from scratch?”
“Our place,” he said with a pleased grin. “Yes and no. It’s … well, it’s not a cabin except for a façade. The main area is part of a small cave system. I’ve mapped about five miles of it and blocked off where my mapping stops. One of these days I’ll get around to it but I don’t need the space right now. There’s a couple of separate open caverns that are right into the wall of the canyon and one of those I’ve already converted to a stable. Another one I figure we can turn into grain storage if we can get in a crop. But I’ve been thinking … and thought you might like to hear it.”
I nodded. “There’s a lot of work to do to make the living space ready for the winter. It’s May and even though we’ve seen the last of the snow finally the highs are just barely making it out of the 60s. Next month it is really going to warm up and it will stay that way through August. September it will start to get mild again and then by October it starts freezing again at night and goes downhill until around April. You got lucky and missed some nasty weather we had right before I headed out to find Rosie.”
I asked, “What kind of work? I’m trying to get it straight in my head.”
“Well, the cave atmosphere will keep it a nice fifty-five degrees year round … at least back in the storage areas. The more exposed areas behind the façade can get doggone cold in the winter so I built a fireplace … it needs some finishing but all of the stove pipe is already in. But what you should understand is that someone … who knows who they were … had been using the cave during the Outbreak. They’d brought in a bunch of stuff and have already built partitions to section off rooms and work areas. I found their bodies about four miles down one of the smaller offshoots from the main cavern. It looks like maybe they got lost or rain out of supplies, I don’t know. All three were dead and had been that way for a long time.”
“There was three of them?”
He nodded, “Yeah.”
Curious I asked, “Did it look like they’d been fighting?”
“Uh uh, it’s the first thing I checked for.”
Fairly certain I said, “Probably food or water poisoning then. I’ve seen people think they’ve scored and haul it off to their group only next time anyone sees them they’re all dead. Sometimes the poisoning was intentional sometimes not … like finding canned food in the rubble of a building. That’s why I prefer foraging.”
He sighed and then pulled out a small tent. “OK, so maybe they ate something bad. Either way they were toast and left a mess behind. All I know is they didn’t leave any food behind so either there was more than the three of them and it got hauled off or they just never finished what they started. Regardless I’ve added to the mess by tucking stuff in there. Got a couple of metal barrels of grains, some beans, stuff like that so we won’t starve but this year is going to be tight. I hate to but I’ll probably have to take a couple of jobs and do some trading for what we’ll need. We should go to sleep, long day in the saddle tomorrow.”
I looked at the tent and realized it was time to pay the piper. Asa was pretty good at reading what I let him read and he said, “We’re both tired Gurl … and I want it to be right. It’s not right yet.”
Over the next few days he said that a lot and then he didn’t say it anymore … but not because he did anything. I wondered if he expected me to make the moves so I gave it a try and he went out and was gone for two days. He was back but after that neither one of us brought it up again. It was a little strange but as long as nothing we did approached that particular subject things went well.
After arriving at Asa’s place he showed me around and then after a day of rest we got to work. And boy did we work. It was a good thing that I was in as good a shape as I was. A lot of it was manual labor … moving one pile from one place to another and trying to be organized. We finished off the living area and the bedroom first. We shared the bedroom, we even shared the bed … but the only thing we did in it was sleep.
Eventually I just gave up and let things be what they were. Every couple of weeks Asa would get to acting strange and I finally told him when he felt himself getting that way that it wouldn’t bother me if he needed to go work some of it off … or if he needed me to go for a while.
He shook his head almost violently. “It isn’t you Gurl. Sometimes my skin just crawls and … and the only way to make it stop is to just … just go.”
“To any place in particular?”
“No. In fact it’s only going knowing that I don’t have to be any place in particular that helps get rid of it. I’m … I’m sorry.”
I tossed a twig at him from where I was lying on the ground soaking up some sun. “I don’t know why you need to feel sorry. You hear me apologizing because I don’t feel like talking?”
I was going to deny it. “OK, so maybe it is a little. If you go off and get hurt I don’t know how to find you and help. So if you plan on being gone more than a week let me know before you scat for the open spaces. Deal?”
Asa looked at me and asked, “It … it really doesn’t bother you that I just go off?”
“You let me be me so I figure it is only proper that I let you be you. I need to be silent sometimes and sometimes you need to go off on your own. What is there to be bothered about?”
He finally laid down on the ground next to me and said, “This being with you is so easy it’s getting scary.”
“Nothing to be scared of Asa. We have a goal. We have a plan on how to get there. We’re working on it. So what if we hit a few bumps along the way? We get along don’t we?”
“Are we constantly yapping at each other and making each other miserable?”
“Well … I’m not miserable. Are you?”
“No. And I’ll be honest and say I didn’t expect it to be this easy either. Are you lonely anymore?”
“No, not really.”
I rolled over on my side and looked at him. “That doesn’t sound definite. Is there anything I can do to make you all the way not lonely?”
He sat up and said, “Nope. Everything’s fine. I better get back to work.”
I wasn’t sure what was going on but I hadn’t exactly been talking about what he obviously thought I was talking about. Usually, weather permitting and it did most of the time, when Asa got like that I would go forage for a while.
Amaranth was one that I brought in pretty regularly as it grew abundantly in the old waste areas left by a now defunct logging industry. Bee Balm tastes a little like oregano and I used it to flavor the game that Asa or I would bring in. Burdock was one of our favorites and we had it once a week. It was easy to find along the remains of an old road that was about three miles from Asa’s homestead. The others that I found and brought back were catnip, cattail, chickweed, chiming bells borage, and several others.
In June I found something called prairie turnips, wild strawberries, but best of all gooseberries. I’d never had a gooseberry and Asa laughed again at the way I almost ate them until I was sick. When I asked Asa if he knew how to build a dehydrator he treated it like a challenge and by the time he was finished I was almost sorry I’d put him up to it. It was solar powered but he put fans in it and a glass door and more trays than I was afraid I could ever fill.
“We’ll fill them next summer after we get a garden in. You’re better at this than I figured or I would have said let’s just go ahead and start one this year.” After thinking he said, “Is there anything else you want?”
“Nothing that can’t wait.”
“Pretend you don’t have to. Look around, what would you like?”
Willing to play his game I said, “An easier way to do laundry than to take it down to the river and beat it to death and then have to haul it cold and wet back here to hang it up.”
He nodded and said, “I can do that. Even have all the parts for it already because I don’t want to have to break ice to do laundry during the winter. As soon as I finish the ventilation system and get that cooler rigged up I’ll get on it.”
There was no telling him to slow down once he got an idea in his head. Mostly I just provided manual labor when I wasn’t off exploring. In July we added raspberries and something Asa called serviceberries. They were really good. In fact for the first time in my memory everything seemed good. Well, almost everything, but nothing is perfect. So what if Asa had a few quirks, I wasn’t exactly quirk free.
Every day that went by Asa and I seemed to accomplish something; and we did it together. I wasn’t used to that, that feeling. It made my chest hurt sometimes. For the first time in my living memory I had a friend … a real friend. The lack of that other? Compared to finding out what a real friendship was it was nothing. Every day there was something to smile about if not laugh about. When I ate alone it wasn’t because I had to. When I walked alone it wasn’t because I had to. When I felt like talking there was someone there to listen. When I had a question I couldn’t find the answer to on my tablet there was someone I could ask and if he didn’t know he had a whole library we could hunt the answer down in … together. Then the rest of the world wanted a piece of the pie.