I didn’t have a lot of spare clothes but I layered what I could and then pulled on the old coverall over the top of that. I didn’t have a hat but a piece of an old tablecloth served as a scarf when I was cooking so I added it to cover my ears and to keep any blood and other bits out of my hair. If it was getting cold the last thing I wanted to do is wash the curly mess.
Unfortunately socks weren’t going to happen. The one pair I had were threadbare and barely adequate. I wrapped my feet with some spare strips of cloth I used for just that purpose and then figuratively girded my loins to face the consequences.
Outside the weather was indeed getting colder; almost enough to cause me to go back inside and hide out. I thought for a moment whether I was doing this for Carmine or for myself and realized it was half and half. I felt bad about embarrassing Carmine but I felt just as bad about losing self-control and letting my feelings show. Under any other circumstances my actions would have handed these people knowledge and power over me. They would have seen a chink and could have used it to manipulate me. I vowed it would not happen again.
I walked back towards the town square but hung back a bit to locate Carmine. I was not as invisible as I had tried to be. I saw a man tap another on the shoulder and point in my direction. That man looked up and it was Carmine. He looked at me and waited. He must have sensed that I was wondering if he actually wanted me around because his posture relaxed and he used his head to nod me over.
Taking a breath I started across the square trying to ignore everyone else and just focus on Carmine. When I got there he said, “Gurl, this is the man I call Uncle Jack. He’s Sally’s husband. He wants to hear about your clumsy elk and what you did with it.”
After I was finished the story Jack asked, “And you’d never hunted anything bigger than a rabbit at that point?”
I shook my head and said, “No. Well, actually I had tried but it didn’t work. I was in a bad way and wasn’t able to get close enough to the big animals to take them down quickly and safely.”
“And you had never field dressed or butchered an animal before?”
I was feeling on safer ground and said, “Not such a big one. I learned to butcher rats from watching other street people when I was little. I raised Norwegian rats as cattle but the ones I raised only got to about two pounds. Sometimes I would hunt African rats – those could weigh ten to fifteen pounds – but you had to be careful because the African ones could carry the pox. I knew some people that raised African rats for the market but they wanted way more in barter than I was willing to part with.”
One of the younger men made a disgusted face and asked, “Cattle? You mean … you eat rat?”
I looked at him and grinned evilly just for effect. “Yep … and park monkey, pond frog, pigeon, dove, snake, turtle, and anything else smaller than me that doesn’t move fast enough.”
The boy that had gotten in my face earlier laughed said, “Hear that Bina? I’d watch out.”
Immediately it wasn’t funny anymore and I said, “Not that. I never did that.” I turned only to find Carmine handing me a knife and asking me to sharpen it.
“I need a good edge on that.” I took the homemade butcher knife from him and pulled my whetstone from my pocket where I tended to keep it. As I did as he requested he said, “You never told me you had to deal with cannibalism in the city.”
I shrugged, “Isn’t a nice subject. It was everywhere at one point until enough people starved off during the winters that the local wildlife could feed what was left. Not even the street riff-raff admit doing it but it still happens … or did when I was bagged and tagged. People are just animals; expecting them to be anything else is just looking to be disappointed.”
The cynicism was heavy in my tone though I didn’t know it until Carmine told me about it later. I gave him back the blade and started to leave again but he handed me another knife. I looked at him and told him without words I knew what he was doing. He admitted it with his eyes but that didn’t stop him from handing me a new knife each time I finished with the one before it. As I sharpened the blades I observed what was going on around me while answering the occasional curious question thrown my way.
The heads had been severed from each of the bodies of the buffalo and hung from a large tree, well away from the fire. Several bloody saws gave testament to how the heads had been removed and remembering my experience with the elk I was glad I hadn’t been around for that part. All of the hocks had also been removed from the three carcasses. I looked for them but didn’t see them so I assumed they had been put away for another purpose, similar to the hanging heads.
Each carcass had its own group dedicated to finishing the task of butchering it. Carmine had been working with the group processing the bull. The belly and chest of the beast had been split open and the hindquarters skinned. A gambrel was being inserted and I saw that the wench was being used to hoist the carcass so that the work could be finished.
As the processing continued … skinning to splitting … I was handed more and more knives. Finally I looked at Carmine and said, “I can do something besides sit here and do this. It isn’t fair that everyone else has to do the heavier work.”
Carmine, brutally honest as always said, “No one wants you coughing germs all over the place Saloli. Besides, you put a fine edge to a blade without wasting metal and the skill is appreciated.”
I wouldn’t have believed him except “Uncle Jack” said, “You should tell Sally that you’ll sharpen her scalpels for her. A good whetstone like that is worth its weight these days.”
I looked at it and said quietly, “It was my father’s.”
Carmine glanced over as Jack nodded. I said thoughtfully, “As long as her tools aren’t too messed up I have a really fine grit stone that works good on razors.”
Carmine asked, “You can sharpen straight razors?”
I nodded. “I can, but I don’t like to use this stone to do it. Straight razors – just like doctoring tools – need the finest edge possible.”
Frustrated Carmine demanded, “Then why the Sam Hill didn’t I know?”
I shrugged, “I didn’t know you had one that needed sharpening. I’ve only ever seen you look scruffy.”
I heard laughter beside me and turned to see a young woman bringing a pan over to collect more meat. Carmine said, “Don’t encourage her Clarey.”
Completely unfazed the young woman named Clarey said, “Why not? It’s good for you Uncle Carmine … builds character.”
Carmine snorted, “That much character no man needs.”
More laughter followed and Clarey turned to me and said, “Grandmother wants to know if you’ll come and sharpen the knives we have as well.”
Carmine snorted again and glowered but I saw the twinkle in his eye so I didn’t take it too seriously. I got up from where I had been sitting on the ground and could feel where the chill had made me stiff. The other women were nearer the fire and Clarey threw a braded rug on the ground for me to sit on. She said, “It’s not much but that’s got to be better than the gravel you were sitting on over there.”
I shrugged and said, “It is, thank you, but you didn’t need to. You didn’t take if from anyone did you?”
She smiled and shook her head, “No. Grandmother said your name is Gurl. Is … is it really?” I nodded. “OK, I just thought maybe Uncle Carmine was playing a trick or something.”
“No, it’s really my name … or the only one …” I gave up. Either people would accept it or they wouldn’t. These people may be Carmines family but I didn’t want to have to explain it all over yet again.
Clarey ignored my unfinished sentence and said, “We’ll eat well tonight and tomorrow. Fresh buffalo is delicious. I overheard you telling Grandfather about drying the elk meat; drying buffalo is similar, there is just a lot more of it. It is going to be a job and a tight fit to get everything on the scaffolding we have.”
I looked and saw that as the older, more experienced women cut the large pieces of meat into very thin strips that would be taken and strung onto wooden dowels so that they hung down but did not touch. When the dowel was full it was handed off to another woman who would hang it on frames built over coals. I saw that the same woman seemed to be putting chips of wood on the coals.
Without thinking I said, “There is a dead apple tree behind the house that the cow busted up if you want to use that.”
I hated the sudden attention that my words brought me and wished I’d never let them slip passed my teeth. The woman by the fire said, “Apple? Really? How green is it?”
I said quietly, “It isn’t green at all. I used some of it when I was drying the elk meat.”
The woman sent a couple of small children off and they were soon back with a cloth full of wood chips that they carried like a bucket between them. The woman looked at the chips and said, “Someone needs to sharpen their axe.”
I shrugged, “I didn’t have an axe or I would have. I was using a sharp stone I found near the river to make chips with. Mostly I wound up having to peel splinters out of some of the smaller limbs.”
The same woman, after a short surprised pause asked, “Is apple all you used?”
I shook my head. “I tried oak and maple as well. There’s a fallen alder tree I used but I kept that for the fish I smoked.”
Sally who sat nearby said dryly, “From the river … the one you fell into. And how did you catch them?”
“I made a basket out of some of the wimpiest branches I could find and stuck it under one of the narrow cascades. I didn’t catch many, but it was only me at the time so …” Another shrug. I wasn’t sure what the third degree was about.
Carmine had ears like a fox and said, “Ha! You should see her spear fish with a sharpened stick.”
Irritated at him for some reason I said, “I was after frogs that day, the trout just got in the way. How was I supposed to know they were so close to the bank? I thought when it got cold they go to the deeper part.”
He laughed, “They’re supposed to. Your “Some One” was doing us a favor.”
One of the older woman asked, “Some One?”
I felt like sinking into the ground but was saved when a very old man came over and looked at me. His eyes looked like they’d seen the world come and go several times in his life span. He nodded and said, “Yah-weh. The Creator.”
I nodded but refused to say anything else. The old man nodded and moved on, making his slow way closer to the fire where he finally sat.
Clarey frowned and asked Sally, “Grandmother can I bring U-gu-gu some tea? His bones are aching.”
Sally nodded and we all finally became engrossed in what we were doing. I put an edge on every blade of every sort that was handed to me until I was doing it only by the light of the fire I had turned to use. The youngest children had been bundled off to bed long ago and finally, with the many hands to help, the last of the meat was hung to dry.
I was putting a fine edge on Sally’s tools which took concentration. The blades themselves weren’t very big and one wrong move could knick and ruin them. I finally put the last one down and stretched my neck and shoulders to ease the tension that had taken up residence there. Carmine chose that moment to come over carrying a large blanket. “Ready to eat?”
I blinked owlishly around realizing a lot of people were dozing under blankets of their own. Carmine sat beside me and wrapped the blanket around us after he handed me a small pot and two spoons. “Crockery is sparse, breaks real easy on the road; we’ll have to share this.”
“Trenchers,” I mumbled around a bite of hot, delicious meat.
“Make trenchers.” When he still looked unsure about what I meant. “Kind of like a small wooden trough.”
“That thing you were eating out of before I came along?”
I nodded but told him, “It isn’t a piece of junk like you’re acting as if it is.”
He’d finished and pulled the blanket around us tighter and said, “Don’t get wound up. I didn’t mean it was a piece of junk. Did you make it?”
I shrugged, still trying to finish what he’d left me to eat. “I just finished what nature had started. I found it right before I got to the Badlands and it gave me something to do at night.”
“Besides sleep you mean? You’d only been walking all day after all.”
I sighed. “I thought you said you didn’t mind I wasn’t the breakable sort of girl.”
He snorted, took the finally empty pot from my hand and handed it off to Clarey who was walking by and then without asking laid us both down facing the fire. I wasn’t going to fight him in front of his family but I wasn’t exactly pleased with his move either. He chuffed in my ear and then whispered, “Don’t worry. I’m too tired to finish that conversation we started earlier today. It’ll happen soon enough but not in the middle of a small village-worth of people. Now sleep. While the buffalo meat dries tomorrow some of us are going hunting for elk or deer. The meat and hides are needed.”
More tired than I wanted to admit I nevertheless looked around until I saw several guards. Carmine muttered, “Relax. If a big, fat bear comes sniffing around for the meat it just means more meat to preserve. Jerry’s people know what they’re doing.”
The absolute confidence in Carmine’s voice was tempting to give into. Instead I said, “It’s not bears I’m worried about but a repeat of the big cat.”
He grunted. “I told him about it and they’re on the lookout in case it had a partner. Now for criminey sake, shut up so we can sleep. You may be able to run on a thimble full of shut eye but my bumper’s dragging.” He captured my feet and pulled them between his and I realized he noticed that I had started to tuck my feet near him at night so they wouldn’t get cold. He muttered, “I’m making you some fur-lined moccasins. Those icicles you call toes will be very appreciative when the time comes.”
I finally gave in and wiggled until I was surrounded by his body heat and said right before we both dozed off, “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” His tired chuff of humor is the last thing I heard for a while.