Monday, November 14, 2011

Update ...

The following stories are now complete:
A Will To Survive
Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men
Forsaken Harvest (completed as of 11/14/11)
Over the Mountain and Through the Fire
This Is Me Surviving

Stories Currently in Progress:
All Roads Lead Somewhere
Carry On
Gurl
Mom's Journal of the Zombie Years
To All Things There Is A Season
Il Agita Di Amore
And the Geek Will Inherit the Earth

I plan on a very short break and then will begin to try and complete another story. I hope to have at least two more completed before the end of the year.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Just a quick note ...

I'm trying to finish up Forsaken Harvest. I hope to do that no later than tomorrow so you might want to check out the two chapters that I've already put up over there.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chapter 37

Chapter 37

Traveling in the winter is nasty. In the city I used what cover I could but sometimes there was no help for it. Water, sanitation, and food … the first year or two on the street I didn’t intellectually realize what I was doing but let instinct lead me. I knew that if I didn’t get out I would freeze in place. Traveling in the wagon with Carmine was better but still no piece of cake.

After being forced to dig the wagon out yet again Carmine finally threw a man-sized fit, kicked a little snow and said, “That’s it. We’re done for the day. Let’s look for a likely place to hole up until tomorrow.”

I’d been seeing the signs for the last couple of miles and finally decided that he was far enough gone that he might let me help. “You’re tired; I napped before first light for a while. Why don’t you let me drive for a bit.” As he tried to hide his surprise and reluctance I told him. “We’re going slow. If I can drive in the woods to check the trap lines and not get us stuck, I can certainly drive through here. Besides I need the practice. We’ll be able to get more time on the road, charge the solar generator while we do it, and the wind will blow away our tracks.”

I wasn’t overstating the fact that Carmine was tired. He tried to hide it but he was nearly shaking from fatigue and lack of a warm, solid meal since we’d gotten on the road. “I must be crazy.” He scratched his head and said, “All right. But if you run across anything that does look like a good place for the night go ahead and stop. We’ll need to in a couple of more hours anyway. You may be fresher than me but not by much. We both need some food in us that isn’t like chewing on icicles.”

We switched places and though he tried to fight it Carmine was asleep within five minutes, the light droning of the wagon adding to the weight already forcing his eyelids closed.

There was a fine layer of ice on the road bed of the old highway we were on but because I was going slow and the wagon and trailer were so heavy it broke before it could cause me to slide around. The wind added some danger to our travels but was also a Godsend as it blew away the sign of our trail. My concern was the solar batteries in the wagon that were charging and discharging.

Temperature has a strong effect on solar batteries. It takes extra power to charge when batteries are cold and less when it is warm. Solar panels are the opposite; they give more output when cold and output decreases as the surface temperature of the panel increases. So long as the wagon was moving under input straight from the panels we would be fine; but, if we had to switch to batteries things would get rotten pretty fast. That was the main reason we were going to limit our night time travel even though it would be the safest as far as not being seen.

I drove for about two hours and then came to a crossroads. I hated to do it but I nudged Carmine awake and he was instantly alert. In a gravelly voice still tight with fatigue he told me, “Shouldn’t have let me sleep like that; you didn’t have anyone to cover you.”

“Are you kidding? You wake up even faster than I do. Stop grousing and help me figure out which road to take from here. None of the roads go the direction I want to head.”

He snorted but not in a cranky way. “Detour. You can’t see it but … yeah … head up that way. Through that pass is the remains of a little one-horse town. Hardly anything left of it but after we pass through there a couple of miles on, there is a road that turns off towards an old dude ranch. After that we’ll be back into the hills again and should be able to find a place to pull off that isn’t too exposed … if we can make it that far. Has it been blowing like this the entire time?”

I nodded and pulled down the road he’d indicated. “Gusting steady. There’s no real snow in it, this is all just stuff the wind has picked up from the ground and is throwing around.”

“Well that’s something I suppose.”

Those were the last words he spoke until I woke him up again right after I pulled into a tunnel. “Yo … sleeping beauty.”

I was on my last dregs of my fifth or sixth wind I’d caught or I might not have been quite so terse. After Carmine finished pitching a man-fit I turned it around on him and told him thank you for the compliment since I must really drive well for him to have slept so hard. He opened his mouth to say something and then snorted and told me to trade seats with him.

I did with absolutely no problem and I began to doze as I felt Carmine cover me with our trusty buffalo hide. Next thing I remember Carmine saying was, “Come on Saloli, wake up and drink some of this tea before it gets cold. The tunnel protected the fire from the wind but it is still cold as an old maid’s heart out there.”

I sat up and realize the only light was from the fire right in front of the wagon. Carmine had gotten into the wagon to bring me some tea. I mumbled from inside the mug, “What time is it?”

“About nine. Can’t tell if this wind is the forerunner of a storm or if it is just blowing to blow. Last time I was up here I couldn’t find this tunnel … I think it was under a bunch of snow.” I was sipping the tea and trying to get my brain to turnover and go when he reached out and brushed the curls out of my face. “Good job getting us this far. Looks like we might have cut nearly a whole day off of the traveling time I figured. You must have been driving lickety split.”

“Uh uh, you said slow and steady so that’s what I did. I just stayed on the highway rather than try and take any detours. Anything off the road looked too level and I knew there had to be uneven places. I didn’t want to spend time digging out again.”

He nodded. “Good eye. As cold as it is out I doubt anyone is going to be moving around too much but I’d rather be safe than sorry. I’ve had a good long rest. You sleep some more and then in a while I’ll wake you up and we can trade off. Sound good?”

“Mmm,” I told him right before I buried under the buffalo and went back to sleep. Carmine didn’t have to wake me because nature did. I saw him by the fire and when I got out I jerked my thumb back down the tunnel to let him know where I was going.

“Careful. Couple of slick spots where water has dripped from the ceiling. Ain’t gonna tell you how I found out. Man’s gotta have some dignity after all.” The humor of the picture he’d intentionally painted blew the last of the mully grubs from my brain just as the wind blew my nether regions cold while I took necessary actions.

I walked back to the fire in search of warmth and told Carmine, “I’m good if you want to go lay down in the wagon and grab whatever warmth is left in the covers.”

“Sounds good. Would be better if you were in them covers with me.”

I just smiled as I knew while the sentiment was true that it wouldn’t be happening. I took my sharpening stone out and grabbed the box of pits and pieces that I’d been collecting. Carmine asked, “You gonna tell me what you’re doing yet?”

“Throwing blades if these turn out as planned. It will give me something to do.” He just looked at me, shook his head, and went to go get in the wagon.

My watch was mostly uneventful and I had a breakfast of warmed over fry bread and stew waiting for him when he woke up. I told him, “Wind tried to die down around three in the morning but it picked right back up an hour later.”

“Bad? Sounds nasty.”

“Sounds worse that it looks. I think it is the wind blowing across the tunnel opening. And there were some dogs or something last night too. I got one and the rest …”

That torched his tail feather and I got a long dissertation on proper communication as we went out together to take a look. A large canine carcass … or what was left of it … was about fifty yards from the tunnel mouth. Something had been eating on it. “Mixed breed,” Carmine muttered.

“Thought so. The few wolves I’ve dealt with have a lot more sense nor do they run away like coyotes at a few pellets from a sling shot.”

“And just when have you had anything to do with real wolves?!”

I had to laugh, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant. “Haven’t we had this conversation already? Where do you think all the zoo animals went when the cities were abandoned? Those that could adapt did. Wolves are highly intelligent and took over the parks and overgrown places. Mostly they attacked animals but during lean times they would take out sick or weak humans as well. It’s their nature and I don’t blame them for it … but I’m not looking to be a meal either.”

Carmine sighed, “Don’t mind me. Stupid must have found me in the night ‘cause now that you say it I remember we did talk about this; I just didn’t know wolves were part of it. I would have liked to have seen that … from a safe distance of course.”

My smile turned real as I told him, “They were beautiful. I heard that the ones that lived in the city where I was taken were being bagged and tagged and returned to the wild places. I hope that is true and some nitwit didn’t just go around killing them for sport.”

“Strange words from a street rat on the bottom of the food chain.”

I shrugged. “Maybe there was a little human in me too … at least enough to appreciate what the wolves were and their place in nature. Eat your stew before it gets cold while I finish this pot of tea and put it in the thermos.”

“Yeah, yeah Granny Squirrel.”

Carmine’s vim, vigor, and vitality was obviously back. I let the fire go out and sprinkled a little snow on it and then dug out the dead coals and put them in galvanized bucket. We had some wood in the trailer to get us started – sadly we had been forced to leave so much of our wood pile behind – so the coals would come in handy for the next fire.

We made good time that day. “What time tomorrow will we make it to the cabin?”

“I’m not gonna jinx it … but …”

“But …?”

“If nothing bad happens and we drive some into the early evening … and barring any detours and road hazards … we could be there by midnight.”

I yelped, “Midnight?! As in tonight?!!”

“Easy on the ears Saloli,” he laughed. “Yeah, midnight tonight. Driving as far as we did and making good time really helped. Horses or on foot would have taken much longer. I was only hoping to make it as far as the dude ranch but you got us into the pass before stopping. This wind blowing the roads clear hasn’t hurt either. But we aren’t going to have the highway for much longer and I’m thinking that at some point we are going to be driving into the wind which will slow us down considerable. See that little town up ahead?”

Seeing the remains of what looked like a couple of buildings at an intersection I told him, “Yeah.”

“We’re going to get off the highway there and head up into the hills. Forest has been taking over and that tells me that there aren’t too many people through here if any. That’s good for us; it’ll mean plenty of game and no neighbors to worry about. Feel a little cut off but right now that’s what my instincts are calling for.”

Chapter 36

Sorry for the delay. Daughter's bridal shower took more out of me than I expected and then got a cold on top of it. It is hard to think and sniffle at the same time.

--------------------------

Chapter 36

The weeks ticked by. I interacted with Carmine’s family a few times a week but it was obvious that I kept mostly to myself; I wasn’t nasty about it but I chose caution over camaraderie and I stayed away from Chandra and her drama. Carmine didn’t mind and Sally understood and what anyone else thought I don’t know and cared even less.

I would circle around behind the main stretch of houses that the clans had started to habitat and rehab and come to visit by the backdoor rather than the front. It made for less commotion that way. Sometimes Clarey or Bina would tell me someone needed something to be sharpened and then I would find that person and deal with them one on one. People began to learn if they wanted something they’d never find me in a crowd. The men seemed to send messages through Carmine and the women through Clarey or Sally. Only the true elders – those older than sixty years – seemed to not care what sex I was; if they wanted something they asked it … or told me, depending on their personalities.

I honestly didn’t mind for some reason when it came from the oldsters. The elders are … well, they’re cool. I can’t remember meeting too many old people. I know I must have at some point but the “old” people in the city weren’t really old even though they looked it. Old in the cities could mean your thirties. Life on the street is brutal and short for most people. Clarey liked the elders too and it was her special mission to make sure they were all cared for, especially U-gu-gu. When an elder became sick it was a huge deal for everyone.

An old woman that had taken to wandering in her mind, and sometimes wandering away physically, scratched herself pretty badly and it started to get infected. I knew from my experience as a street rat that honey was good for scratches and I took some down and cleaned and dabbed the wound with honey. Sally didn’t mind, she was still treating major injuries from the battle at the winter camp. Clarey didn’t mind because she had all she could handle taking care of the ambulatory elders and fetching and carrying for them.

I didn’t mind because I like the old woman. She had wonderful stories to tell. Sometimes they seemed to be mixed up but there was a lot to learn if you would listen. I especially liked the one where she would tell of her and her sisters picking huckleberries and making huckleberry sodas and shakes and preserves to sell to the tourists that would frequent the area they lived in.

She would laugh at my inability to say her given name so I called her what the children did. “Granny Lark, do you know if huckleberries grow around here?”

In a voice that quavered a bit from age she answered, “I don’t think so child. But there are chokecherries, raspberries, currants, and wild plums. My father loved currants … better than raisins and I had an aunt who would send him a large box of picked and dried currants every year for his birthday.”

She seemed more lucid than usual so I asked, “What was your father like?”

“Oh he was a fine man, tall and lean. Our mother left when my sisters and I were very small. She used to go out of our little valley to work seasonally at the hotels to bring in cash money but then when she would come home she would be less and less satisfied with our life; outside the valley she was a single woman with an income, in the valley she was a wife and mother with too many responsibilities to, in her words, enjoy life. One season she decided to stay in the city for an extra few months. A few more months turned into yet a few more and then a year and then we grew old enough to realize she was never coming back. Mother’s family was embarrassed by her and treated us bad since she wasn’t around to punish for the loss of honor so Father broke tradition by divorcing Mother first and when he went back to his mother’s family and his sisters, he took us with him. We were raised not by our mother’s sisters but by our father’s mother and sisters. It was hard to be a child and understand these things.”

“But I bet it made you strong,” I told her.

“My father and aunts saw to that; we would have withered like trampled pasque blossoms without their constant encouragement. When my sisters and I wanted to quit school because of the cruelty of the other children they forbid it. Eventually we learned to be strong in spirit, but it was hard. Hard like learning to live again after the Outbreak took so much from us all. Hard like learning to return to the ways of our ancestors, not just for ceremonies and shows for the tourists but day-to-day. Hard to learn new places and new old ways to live because the old ways to live we once knew were no longer available to us. Sally is a good girl to have been able to pull so many of us who are so different together to make a new family.”

I had to smile at the idea of Sally being called a “good girl” like she was a child. I looked up to ask another question only the old lady had dozed off. I sighed, she seemed to be doing that more and more. I knew what it meant. Sally did too. Clarey though didn’t seem to realize it yet and I worried that when the old woman’s time came, as it inevitably would, she would be hurt rather than happy that Granny Lark had gone to meet her Creator that she longed to see so much.

I was tucking a robe around the sleeping elder when the light was blocked from the fireplace. “I’ll sit with her a while.”

I turned to look and it was Chandra’s husband Johnson. I didn’t know what the protocol was then he added, “She is my mother’s aunt and I would never hurt her.”

I shook my head but didn’t know what to say exactly. He seemed to understand and told me, “It’s good that you were looking after her. It’s a fine thing to share of yourself with the elders.”

Clarey chose that moment to come in and then stopped short. “Oh, hi Johnson. Granny Lark is asleep? I brought her some soup.”

“We’ll set it by the fire and when she wakes I will make sure she eats.”

It was obvious that Johnson was who he said he was, or at least was close enough to it that Clarey, very protective of the elders, didn’t seem to see a problem with him there. I’d never seen a man as a caretaker and knew Johnson, for all his size, probably got made fun of by some of the more traditional men. But that wasn’t my problem and I didn’t plan on inserting myself into something that was none of my business.

I was heading to the back of the house to disappear into the woods when I saw Bina and she was in trouble in a small clearing directly ahead of me. This I decided was my business. I marched over and stood beside her. The three boys circling around her like a dog pack were Chandra’s and I knew the potential for problems were pretty high but it was a situation that couldn’t be allowed to continue.

“Go,” I told them tersely.

“You ain’t our boss.” Only they didn’t end the sentence with boss but with a very vulgar word that I’m sure they’d heard from their own mother’s mouth.

I decided it was time to let a little of the real me out. “Listen punk. It isn’t smart to take on an enemy you know nothing about.”

He looked at me. Smiled. Then called me the vulgar word again. I looked at him. Smiled. Then backhanded the little creep hard enough that it put him down with a broken nose. That scared the crud out of the two other boys, both of whom were younger by a year or two. The punk on the ground however had some stuffing to him. He came up at me fast and mean with a little pig sticker of a knife; and he did it well enough for me to know this was far from his first brawl. But it was far from my first as well.

I slid out of his way as he lunged at me and I grabbed the hand that wasn’t holding the knife. He was strong for his age but he was no match for a street rat. I dislocated his thumb and he screamed in pain but he still tried to come back around at me with the knife. I slid out of his way again and took his legs from in under him and he went face down into an icy mound of slush.

That’s when the little monster showed his true colors and revealed more than he probably meant to. “You just wait until Chandra gets ahold of some Harvesters. They’ll do for you. They’ll use you until you’re …”

I was actually contemplating whether to end the little psychopath’s misery right there but a bull’s bellow drew us all up sharp. Carmine was … well, I’m not sure exactly what you would call what he was. Furious didn’t even scratch the surface. Crazy might have but he wasn’t crazy. It took Jerry and three big guys to get in front of him and Carmine still managed to make the slide backwards in the snow until I put my hand on his arm and asked, “Did you hear what he said?”

Carmine stilled a bit and growled, “I heard.”

“Is it common for your family to turn each other in to the Harvesters? Could it be the boys or Chandra had something to do with what happened at the winter camp?”

Carmine growled, “No, no one in the clan does that to each other.”

He would have said more but Sally, white with shock and a deep fury of her own had shown up and told the men, “Let go of Carmine and take the boys. Tie them until we have a meeting. Find Chandra and tie her as well until will get to the bottom of this. Send my daughters to me and call the elders together.”

The boys were fighting tooth and nail but I could tell it was now in fear; they obviously knew something I didn’t. Sally turned to Carmine and asked, “You’ll abide by the Elders’ decision?”

Carmine was still so angry he could do little more than work his jaw and squeeze his gloved hands into fists. Sally’s question had only made him angrier. I squeezed his arm through his coat sleeve, looked at him and then looked at Sally. “Carmine and I can take care of ourselves Sally. But if what that boy says is true? Carmine and I have some talking to do … and we’ll try and let your council or whatever it is handle it, for the sake of family. But that kind of danger, if it is real, can’t be allowed to continue.”

It wasn’t what she wanted but it was all she was going to get and under the circumstances I thought it was pretty generous. She nodded and then turned as the three boys were dragged away, still kicking and screaming. I heard a scream of rage that came from the direction of the town square but it was followed by increasingly incoherent sounding nonsense that I couldn’t make out because of the distance but fear was definitely part of the noise. That told me a thing or two; and told those of us left what we needed to know.

Everyone had left the scene except for Carmine and I and Jerry. Jerry’s face was carefully blank as he watched Carmine struggle with his control. Suddenly I was crushed in a hug that nearly took all the breath from my lungs. He turned loose of me less quickly and then said, “Remind me to ask you how you learned to fight like that.”

“No need to remind you later,” I told him. “I guess you’ve never considered the potential for violence of forcing over a hundred emotionally stressed out and hormonal females to live together in a jail-like fashion.”

After a moment both Carmine and Jerry blanched. I nearly smiled but the situation was too serious. Jerry sighed. “Brother … there’s nothing I can say that will make this easy. You know what they will decide.”

I looked between the two men trying to understand. Carmine nodded. “I know. And you know what actually needs to happen but you won’t do it.” Then Carmine shook his head and added, “And I’m not sure I could order it done either except in the heat of the moment … and then I would spend a lifetime second guessing myself.”

Jerry nodded and walked in the direction his mother had taken. Carmine looked at me again and said, “You sure you’re OK?”

I nodded and we started walking towards our cabin. Carmine asked, “Are we all packed up?”

After a pause I told him, “Except for our everyday stuff and what is upstairs.”

He nodded. “How would you feel about taking a road trip?”

I shrugged then said, “Depends on whether you are doing this to protect me or if there is something else involved.”

He was silent until we got back to the cabin and went inside. He looked at the skins that were still hanging in their frames and asked, “Gonna hurt these to roll them up for the time being and pack them?”

“No. But you still haven’t …”

He stopped then looked around. I watched him shut the door and throw the bolt across it leaving us in near total darkness; he hadn’t done that in a long while. He flicked the solar flashlight that we seldom used but which was always close at hand and he took my arm and drew me down to the basement. It was cold but not unbearably so with our jackets still on. He started a fire while I continued to wait for why he’d interrupted me.

Finally he said, “Those little piss ants really didn’t hurt you?”

Growing a little concerned I said, “Carmine, if I was hurt I would have said so. He never even came close. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t reasonably well versed in using a knife but apparently he’s never come up against someone that was a real street fighter like he wants to be.”

Carmine relaxed but only a little. “The boy Charlie … there’s something wrong with him. Everyone knows it but no one …” He stopped and shook his head.

I asked, “What is going to happen to them?”

“The boys – probably Chandra too – will serve a bondage period; most people would call it slavery but it is more like extreme community service with no freedom and an overseer at all times. When not working they’ll be chained up. Normally they would be cast out but under the circumstances and what Charlie’s threat revealed, the clans won’t be able to afford that risk. Charlie is either a psychopath or a sociopath, either way he’s dangerous. The two younger boys, if they are taken away from Charlie and Chandra, may be worth something eventually. Charlie – there’s no fixing whatever is broke in that boy, he’s too far gone. Jerry knows it. Most of the men know it. Now the women will too. And the elders. But they won’t do what should be done. The kid is like a rabid animal. If Chandra …”

His fury was choking him again so I leaned against him to give him human contact. Gradually his shaking stopped. He grabbed me in a one armed hug and into my hair he whispered, “You know what I want. You know what I need.”

Uh huh. He needed to know I was really there and whole and safe and sound. Sometimes there is only one way to prove that to a man apparently. Afterwards, as his passion was finally spent on something more constructive than worry and fury, we lay under the covers and talked.

“Saloli, we need to go check out that other cabin.”

He said it like he wasn’t sure I would really go for the idea but I had already come to the same conclusion. “We can make our leaving out to be a good thing. Leave a note for Jerry – or Sally if that is more correct – and tell them we’re leaving so that whatever the Elders choose can be put into action without our presence causing any debate. When we get to the cabin and see whether anything can be done about it you can contact Jerry by radio and let him know when or if we’ll be back.”

He was relieved and it showed in his voice. “Jerry will know that’s a story.”

“Good for him. Hopefully he’ll be smart enough however to let it go at face value. When do you want to leave?”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

I smiled despite everything that had gone down and he gave a little one in return as well. The question and answer was a little bit of a ritual between us, a kind of affirmation that I was really in it with him and not just giving in to get through. It was also his way of saying he was still open to discussion if I needed it.

He groaned and started to get dressed in the cooler than comfortable room. “How quickly can you get the hides and furs rolled up and packed?”

Thinking I told him, “Hour, hour and a half. There’s a lot of them and I don’t want to tear the edges as I unlace them.”

“OK, you start that while we have good light and I’ll start hauling up our gear from down here and also make some fry bread to pack with the pemmican you made the other day. I’ll hook the trailer to the wagon and we can start loading once we see what all we have. The less we have to leave behind the better.”

Wondering I asked, “Will anyone come by before we can get out of here?”

“No. They’ll be debating and talking well into the night. I plan on leaving no later than midnight. We’ll run without lights … it’ll save the battery anyway. I’ve got a couple of night rider helmets. We’ll have to run slow and careful but once light catches up to us we’ll be far enough away that moving faster won’t be such a problem. Hopefully there won’t be too many detours between here and the cabin. A lot will depend on how much snow has built up in the cuts.” He turned to look at me. “Traveling this time of year is not optimal.”

I shrugged. “No, but better to do it now and get dug in rather than wait for spring and a possible attack from SEPH or their minions.”

He nodded and with it settled with both got busy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Chapter 35

Chapter 35

It did not take me long to figure out who Carmine’s old girl friend was but it kind of blew me away at the same time. She was built about as opposite of me as it was possible; only an inch shorter than Carmine, statuesque, beautiful bone structure and auburn hair that would have been gorgeous if she didn’t keep it buzz cut short and spikey … it looked like a piece of brown colored berber rug on her head. Boy was she giving me heck with her eyes; it was like being looked at with chips of black ice.

I would be lying if her looks didn’t cause me a twinge. Carmine felt my attempt to cover it. “Saloli you told me you wouldn’t have a problem with her.”

I shook my head. “No. I said I wouldn’t have a problem with her unless she gave me one. The woman is simply drop dead beautiful. Do you want me to pretend she isn’t?”

“She’s a sour puss. It takes her a month of Sundays to warm up. It got old trying to wheedle her into a good mood all the time.”

I snorted. “Yeah and I’m sunshine and pancakes all the live long day.”

He barked a loud laugh that drew more attention than I was comfortable with. “That’s my Gurl. Better go pay our respects to Sally.”

A harassed looking Clarey jogged passed us with a large plastic jug of water. She’d overheard Carmine and said, “I wish you would. And Gurl¸ you wouldn’t have happened to have brought your sharpening stone would you? Grandmother’s needles are as dull as ditchwater from all the stitching she has had to do. She’s being forced to use a surgical awl to make holes to pull the stitches through.”

I looked at Carmine and said, “She means sewing up people?”

He sighed, “Yeah, I’m afraid so.”

We found Sally under an awning changing dressings of different people. When she was between patients I told her, “Clarey says you need some sharpening done.”

She looked up and started to say something but her eyes widened for a moment. “What on earth are you wearing?”

I did an exaggerated pirouette and then twisted this way and that like I’d seen teevid models do when they showed off what they were wearing or their assets underneath. “Like it? Carmine made it. It’s probably a litter mate to the one that went into the river with me. And he made me moccasins lined with rabbit too. Carmine got the cat but I got the rabbits.”

She asked, “What did you do, track it?”

I shook my head. “No. It was gonna eat us so we decided to eat it first. I wasn’t too fond of the beastie at first but I like the irony of a rat wearing a cat.”

Sally looked like she wanted to smile but was just too tired. “Ask Clarey, she knows where I keep things.” In just a matter of seconds we were forgotten as the next patient groaned.

I looked at Carmine. “I can hang with Clarey and see what I can here do if you need to go pay any more respects … like to U-gu-gu or Jack?” He was debating and I could tell he wanted to say something. I gave him a small grin and told him, “I’ll stay out of trouble as long as trouble leaves me alone.”

He gave me a small grin and then added for my ears alone, “Don’t become a push over just to stay nice. You do what you need to.”

I would have anyway but didn’t say it for the sake of keeping the peace between us. I walked into the house behind where we had found Sally and was nearly run down by Clarey as she came from the back with a bucket full of dirt. She stopped and saw me, “Don’t tell me Grandmother has another errand for me already? I’ll never get this cleaned up in time for U-gu-gu to take his afternoon nap in peace.”

“Relax, just point me in the direction of the stuff that needs sharpening.”

She wilted a bit. “Sorry, that was a rude way to great you. Things have been … but I guess Father told Uncle Carmine and he told you. By the way, I never asked but what do you want me to call you … Auntie or something.”

I nearly choked on my spit before saying, “Uh … if it’s not some family thing could you just stick with Gurl?”

She grinned. “Sure. To be honest that’s a relief. I’ve got enough Aunts and Aunties to make a respectable size herd.” I told her as soon as I was done sharpening I would help her clean unless Carmine needed me for something.

I had just put the last one back into its case when the sun was blocked from the door. A box of things got thrown at my feet. “I’ll be back for them shortly so you better have them done.”

I looked up and sure enough it was the old girlfriend. Clarey stood there looking embarrassed and upset. The woman had already started to walk away and I shoved the box hard with my foot and it caught her heel right as she was about to go down the porch steps. Instead of going down gracefully she went down them like an old bag of bones that had forgotten out to walk. She didn’t land in the dirty snow but only because she did a fancy two step and had grabbed the porch railing.

“Why you little …”

But I was already up and on the porch facing her. “Just because I’m small doesn’t mean I can’t be dangerous and mean if I need to be. You treat me with respect you’ll get the same from me but I won’t be treated like a slave … I’ve already lived that life under SEPH and will not repeat it.”

The woman started to come towards me but Sally called imperiously, “Chandra. Where are your manners? Saloli is my niece by marriage and you will treat her with more consideration.”

The woman named Chandra said, “With all due respect to you Sally, you are not my clan leader.”

As quick as lightening a very angry Sally told her, “Then I suggest you go to my daughter’s caravan and stay out of mine.”

Ouch. Sally might as well have slapped the woman and it was obvious that Chandra was embarrassed at being called out in such a way by an elder. Sally wasn’t too happy either. I hadn’t meant to cause problems and was going to say so but Sally read it on my face. “She was due a reminder Saloli so don’t worry about it.” It was odd but she had picked up Carmine’s name for me and I decided to just let it stand. “Just stay out of her way. She needs to pay attention to her own family instead of things she has no business being into. Those boys of hers are about to drive the men into doing something drastic.” With another shake of her head she asked, “Were you able to do anything with the needles or were they hopeless.”

“Just finished the last one, cleaned it and put it in the case it came from.”

Sally looked relieved and nodded then went back to tending to patients. I went back inside to find Clarey trying to move an old broken sofa. With me lifting on one end and her on the other we managed to move it into a side room that looked like an old utility space. Clarey groaned. “Father doesn’t want to throw any of the furniture out until he looks it over to see if anything is salvageable.” Since we were both covering out faces due to the smell of dust and mildew I was tempted to tell her that the sofa was a lost cause until I realized that there was probably a frame underneath the stuffing that possibly could be made into something.

We headed upstairs and saw there were three bedrooms up there. Clarey told me, “Grandmother and Jack will sleep in the big room. Bina and I will share the small room and Father will take the room at the head of the stairs. U-gu-gu will have the bedroom downstairs so he doesn’t have to climb. I’ve stripped most everything from the rooms that wasn’t worth saving. What do you think?”

I saw ropes coiled on the floor in each of the rooms and asked, “What are those for?”

“I’ll weave them around the existing bedframes and we’ll put our sleeping pads and furs on them so we don’t have to sleep on the floor. Bina and I will share this bed so we won’t need a stove to keep us warm. Grandmother’s room has a fireplace in it and Father’s room has a small wood stove. So does U-gu-gu’s room.” She headed downstairs and I followed her. “Help me with U-gu-gu’s bedding?”

We were in the middle of it when Bina ran in and said, “Uncle Carmine is looking for you Gurl.”

I was pulling the ropes tight so that Clarey could tie them off and started to say, “Tell him …”

“… that he’s the love of my life and I miss him desparately?”

I looked at Carmine where he was leaning against the door jamb and said, “No, tell him that if he doesn’t come help with this we’re never going to finish it which means he’ll be waiting even longer for me.”

Carmine chuffed a laugh and took Clarey’s place and with that the job was done in less than five minutes. Carmine said, “Bina, help your sister. I need Saloli for a while.”

We walked into the woods and I thought he wanted to show me something when he pulled me behind a clump of trees and kissed me breathless. “What was that about?” I asked.

“Just making sure I hadn’t imagined how good you taste.” I arched my eyebrow at him and he added, “And I’d heard you’d had a run in with Chandra.”

“Sally intervened. I don’t like your old girlfriend Carmine. I really, really don’t. But I’m not looking for a fight.”

“I know Saloli. Just do the best you can. She’s bit off more than she can chew by taking up with that Johnson and his younger brothers and trying to turn them into her sons. I think she had in mind starting her own clan until she realized what a weak man Johnson is … but then again she seems to like it that way. I’ve already heard from several people the boys are out of control. Jerry is about ready to knock them on their backsides if they don’t settle down. We should keep an eye on them, they don’t respect other people’s property very well. In Ishana’s clan … that’s one of Jerry’s sisters … everything is community property. The differences in the way the clans are operating have already caused some problems just on the way here. The boys are making it worse.”

I growled, “Nice neighbors.”

“Hopefully it will only be until snow melt but Jerry has mentioned making this the new winter camp … or possibly just staying here year round. Our people are farmers by culture and the hunter-gatherer system doesn’t come naturally so some of them. Others are talking about it too.”

I wanted to shout no, that we had found this place first – that I had – but didn’t. I’d run into this several times as a street rat. Sometimes it was just best to move on when things got crowded.

Carmine tipped my chin so that I had to look at him. “Hey, you are disappointed aren’t you?”

I shook it off and told Carmine, “I guess I was just wanting this to be the place but you’ve already pointed out there are some problems with it.”

“Well, remember I said that I had a couple of other places I wanted to check?” At my silent nod he said, “One isn’t too far from here; really just over that ridge over that way. Cabin is a little bigger but what used to pass for a garage needs some roof work. Well was clean and clear last time I was there, covered with a real cap and not just a piece of sheet metal like we’ve got. It has a finished basement as well. Even has composting toilets downstairs and in the basement too. It sits back in a little v-shaped area and with not too much stump pulling I think we could have a flat place to have a field and garden. Garden will have to be fenced and I’d like to have a dog or two to roam the field to keep the varmints out. We could take the glass out of this place and see if it’ll fit in the few broken windows that place has.”

I thought and then asked, “What about fireplaces?”

He smiled, “For your cold feet? Nice one down in the basement, another one in the great room, a wood stove in the kitchen, and a couple of small ones in the upstairs rooms. The loft is smaller than the one where we are now but that’s made up by the fact that there are two bedrooms upstairs and a bedroom down. Kitchen is bigger too which might mean something to you down the road; has a nice island in the center and all of the counter tops in the place are all made of local granite.”

“Stone counter tops and all of that other stuff? What kind of cabin is that?” I asked.

“A rich man’s hideaway more than likely. There’s all sorts of furniture left in it – some of it even salvageable – but the location is real remote so anything we want we’ll likely have to make or haul in by hand. There’s a small creek that runs beside the cabin on the opposite side from the toilet clean out that is good for fishing but not for moving supplies up and down. The remains of a helopad is just barely visible if you know where to look. But no one has lived in the place since before the war if they even lived in it then … didn’t feel like a lived in kind of place, more like a vacation home that didn’t get used very much.”

I’d been in a couple of places like that and understood the difference. I thought about it but there wasn’t really much worth debating. “How’s the hunting?”

“As good as here which is why I wanted dogs for the place. Even have mountain goats if we want to walk and do some hunting up on the ridges. Wouldn’t mind having some horses … or maybe mules would be better … and …”

“Whoa Carmine, aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself? Or,” I said looking at him a little suspiciously. “Have you had this planned all along?”

He shook himself to come back to earth and realized how he must have sounded. “I’ll admit that place has been on my mind but only comparing it to this place. I would have stayed here – the apple trees are a plus – but not if the clans are going to set up camp every time I turn around. Family is all well and good but I think the two of us, we need our own space away from crowds.”

I relaxed because I could tell Carmine was being honest. “OK. I’m willing to take a look at this other place. Just makes all the time and effort we put into this one …”

“Not wasted so don’t think that. We still need a place for the winter and we don’t know that the other place is still available. It’s been a little over a year since I was there last. I haven’t told anyone else about it, keeping it in mind for my own getaway. Let’s just let it be for a bit. No use counting our chickens before they’re hatched.” We walked back towards the road and the noise of the clans getting moved in and Carmine asked, “You feel like showing that coat off a bit. I want Jerry and Jack to see it up close and see if any of the other hunters have seen any cat like it.”

It didn’t take long for the men to start wondering if there were any more where the one I was wearing came from. One guy that was dressed like a mountain man said, “Looks like a half breed between a snow leopard and a mountain lion. It’s spotted like a leopard but it’s too yeller to be purebred. And look at that tail what you used to trim the sleeves and collar … can’t see it being any less than half snow leopard unless it’s a throwback of some type. Didja keep the head and paws? I could mebbe tell you more from them.”

Since the face of the thing made up part of the hood of the jacket it was easy enough to show. “Yep, head’s more like a mountain lion but lookit them eye sockets; that there thing had some leopard in it. You say it was as brazen as a painter?”

I looked at Carmine who mouthed, “Old word for panther.”

I left the men discussing what the animal was and wasn’t and wandered over to look and see if I could find any of the woodpeckers that I had been hearing all morning. I don’t know why but I find woodpeckers to be just about the funniest creatures I’ve ever seen. Academically I know they aren’t banging their head against whatever they are pecking at but it sure does look like it.

I was standing, listening for the birds and a direction to take when the world went dark.

*****

“Don’t give me that Chandra, that branch was partially sawn and she was under it, not on it like she’d done it to herself. We also found a bunch of other branches done similarly and your boys were caught red handed up a tree, sawing branches in another area!!”

Carmine’s voice had once again punctured my haze. I know I’d heard him bellowing before but couldn’t remember exactly what he’d been saying. I was lying on a pallet in front of a fire. It felt like I was roasting on one side and freezing on the other.

“If Bina hadn’t seen her moccasins under the branches who knows how long she would have been … she …” I could hear the very real fury in his voice but something else as well that caused his words to have an emotional catch to them. “If she catches sick again because of those boys of yours you better hide them long and deep. As you’ve so often pointed out I’m not one of the clan. I won’t make excuses for those little brutes like everyone else is doing. And in case you hadn’t given it good thought, several of the Elders like to take walks in the woods to have some quiet place to think and enjoy nature. What if one of them had been under the branch instead of my wife?”

I heard some quiet muttering from other people at that before Chandra said defensively, “You can’t prove that it was my boys and it wasn’t an Elder, it was your little …”

Obviously Chandra didn’t have a very high opinion of my morals but I bet mine were better than hers. And I was about to show her that it was nasty business to take on an educated rat. And I’d gone up against a lot more clever and brutish women than her.

I rolled over and up trying to get into a sitting position so I could stand but Sally and Clarey were there to stop me. Ignoring them for the moment I said, “Carmine, don’t try and talk sense to brick walls because they are incapable of it. An easy way to solve this to everyone’s satisfaction would be to say what happens to the boys from here on out. Isn’t it the culture of the clans that after the boys reach a certain age they are given to the men to raise? Maybe there weren’t enough men before to follow through on this tradition but there certainly are now that the clans have all but merged.”

Carmine started to open his mouth then closed it slowly, fighting the knowing smile that I could see hiding behind the beard and mustache that he’d allowed to grow for the winter.

It was U-gu-gu that nodded and in a sage voice said, “True, true. Boys are taught by their uncles while girls are taught by their mothers and aunties. And Chandra’s sons are passed the age this should have started. They are many years off the cradle board.”

Carmine and I never had to say another word. Everyone jumped at the chance to put the incident behind them but at the same time I suspected there would be a good bit of surprise in store for the boys in question. Clarey muttered, “Thanks, now I’m going to have to take care of the terrible trio.”

Sally said, “You will be too busy tending to your own lessons and those boys will be with the men, not sitting around waiting to be taken care of.” She gave me a brief look that told me she knew exactly what I had done but didn’t seem to mind it in the least. She did call Carmine over and say, “Saloli doesn’t look like she has had any lasting effects but I would suggest that you go to your place and perhaps keep her out of the cold for a while. Monitor any headache and let me know if it gets worse or if she begins acting oddly.”

Carmine muttered for my benefit, “How would I tell?”

I looked at him and said, “You are getting good enough that you could take that on the road. Perhaps you’d like …”

“Nope,” he said quickly realizing that I wasn’t quite in the mood for that much teasing. “Like it right where I am thanks. You up to walking or you want me to carry you?”

He was serious so I didn’t let it bother me. Instead I told him, “In this snow? We’ll both wind up face first and covered in slush. I’ll walk; I just may need to do it slow.”

My admission caused him some concern. The fact that I was actually willing to admit to needing to move slower than normal let him know that I really wasn’t feeling top ace. We left – escaped more like it – before Chandra could really spew in our direction. She was too busy dealing with the fact that the whole clan thing and tradition that she’d tried to use against me had had the opposite effect.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chapter 34

Chapter 34

“Stay here with the wagon?”

I looked at Carmine and trusted he wouldn’t ask without a good reason to do so. He’d been having fun teaching me to drive the foul, cranky thing saying that it matched my personality somewhat. I couldn’t completely disagree with him which might be part of the reason I wasn’t able to be on completely easy terms with it yet. “All right. But give me a time that I should … I don’t know … do something if you don’t come back.”

He nodded. “You know them whistles I been teaching you? I’ll give you one within fifteen minutes. If you don’t hear any of ‘em you git and stay gone.”

His response and subsequent disappearance into the forest didn’t give me any time to argue. Thankfully well within the fifteen minute mark he whistled that he was coming in and he wasn’t alone, but things were OK.

I heard the horse before I saw them. I remained where I was however because the look on Carmine’s face was full of both anger and irritation. He turned to look at me and said, “We’re gonna have company. Lots of it.” He turned to look at Jerry whose face was intentionally blank and nodded. Jerry left and then Carmine said, “Let’s go. I want to get the wagon back to the cabin and in storage before people get a gander at it.”

“Carmine?”

I could see he was fighting frustration but I really wanted to know what was going on, thought I had a right to know. Finally, after a few minutes he said, “Sorry. Just hacked at Jerry for bringing his problems here.”

“Someone take over his winter camp?”

Sarcastically Carmine growled, “You could say that.”

I was almost ready to go ahead and tell him to spit it out when he finally said, “I’ll shred every one of them if they’ve brought trouble down on us. Just to be on the safe side I want to get our necessities packed up and keep ‘em that way until further notice in case we need to make a fast exit. I swear no good turn comes without a freaking kick in the pants.”

Finally irritated I said, “Carmine will you please explain.”

“Wha …?” Then he shook himself and said, “Sorry Saloli, just so dang mad right now. This was looking more and more like the place I’d been hoping for and now I’m back to not being sure … thanks to my own ding blasted family. And if they’ve brought SEPH anywhere near you by God, family or not I’ll leave ‘em to rot.”

At the mention of SEPH I immediately tensed and felt like diving for cover. I didn’t have time to really get scared though because Carmine started giving me details. “Jerry and the clan made it to their winter camp, no problem. Didn’t even get any of the ice we did around here. Maybe if the weather had been bad nothing would have happened … but if wishes were horses as they say. Anyway, seems the activities of the Harvesters and their ilk haven’t been producing enough results for the bigwigs in the branch of SEPH that monitors such things. Frankly the Harvesters are illegal as far as the public knows and their activities rarely make it to the media to be reported. Of course you got folks on both sides pushing and pulling.”

I sighed, “Yeah. The facility I was at was targeted several times for protest because people said that the Fertiles weren’t being … we really liked the way they put it by the way … we weren’t being shared out equally. Like we were some kind of property or public resource … which is how we were treated but … whatever.” I stopped before I could get started. That was a road I was trying to stop travelling down. It was in the past and I wanted it to stay here.

Carmine reached out and patted my arm and I knew he knew what I meant. “Right. But SEPH does use the Harvesters for their own ends; there’s rumors they even bank roll them though the proof on that is a hard trail to follow. But I’ve never heard of something happening like what happened to Jerry’s clan and the other ones that camped in that area. I can only hope it was a rogue group and not a new policy they intend on following.”

“What exactly did happen?” We’d arrived back at the cabin, started to empty the back of the wagon and haul things in.

“SEPH hit them directly.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. “SEPH … it’s out here in the Wastelands?” I started backing towards the cabin ready to spring to my backpack … and throw some things in there for Carmine. I imagined knocking him on the head and dragging him away if he wouldn’t come willingly.

“Hang loose Saloli and let me finish the story. Yeah, a unit of people bearing the SEPH insignia attacked the clans. They were in the process of rounding up everyone for testing and transporting – you can guess what that meant – when a US military convoy shows up and whoops up on them pretty serious.”

“The US military? The real deal?”

“Yeah. This is still the US whether we get treated like it or not. We get military patrols through here a few times a year, just usually not in winter. No one makes a big deal out of it which keeps the ruction down to a minimum. They’re mostly after marauders that attack the Outland farms and foreign terrorist groups that try to set up bases on the western and southern boundaries of the Wastelands. The military also go into the hot spots and make sure the nuclear sites aren’t being exploited by anyone. The Black Hills is one of the best of the areas out here, there are some areas where you’ll die within a day of entering. You got lucky that you picked the right direction to blunder down when you first escaped.”

I nodded, “I had some idea was out here from looking at aerial photos I hacked into at the facility. Later on Asa marked all the known areas on maps for me.”
Carmine snorted, “At least he did that much right for you.” I didn’t make a comment; it seemed the wisest course of action to take. “The military didn’t stick around after they took the SEPH personnel and their equipment into custody. They left SEPH’s medical supplies but none of their own personnel to help Sally and the other people she has trained to take care of the injuries or to help bury the dead.”

I swallowed, “Anyone … anyone I know?”

“No one from the family, at least not this side of it; Jerry’s sisters’ clans lost some people and they weren’t very big to begin with. Both groups opted to follow Sally … remember I told you how it works … but nominally Jerry is the head as far as security goes.”

“Why’d Jerry come up here by himself if it was so dangerous?”

Carmine sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Honestly I suppose he was just trying to ease the tension that is bound to happen. I don’t get along real good with his sisters. They don’t like that I live outside the clans … they’ve all but said I’m too white. Not like I care what they think but it makes it hard to get along with them. Not everyone in their clans are like that of course, some are better than decent folks, but they set the tone and can make it hard on anyone that doesn’t tow their line.”

Not liking what I was hearing I said, “Sally didn’t seem like that.”

“And she’s not. Which, in case you haven’t guessed, is one of the reasons that mother and daughters only get together as seldom as they can without tearing up the family. They’ve said some pretty cutting things about Jack and Sally has had a hard time forgiving them for it.”

“How about I stay as far from the lot of them as I can?”

We’d finished putting things away and he grabbed me in a bear hug and said, “How about you let me come with you to whatever mouse hole you find?”

I finally gave him a small smile and said, “Have to be a pretty doggone big mouse hole.”

“I’ll squeeze in somehow. It’ll keep us warmer.” After a moment we both turned to the sound of vehicles moving along the mountain road that wove into town. No one from the road could see us but we could hear them and knew the neighborhood was about to get crowded. Carmine got an uncomfortable look on his face and said, “Look Saloli, I’m no saint and before … a couple of years ago … well … there’s a woman come to town that … she and I … it used to be … well … people were expecting that we’d … aw, blast it.”

I finally understood what he was trying to say. “You mean one of your old girlfriends has come to visit?”

He snorted. “She was a little more than that for a while and she didn’t exactly give me up willingly. She’s got a man now – whooped up on boy by the name of Johnson – but she’s never failed to try and get a dig in whenever we’ve run across each other the last couple of years. If she hasn’t changed she might take a few pot shots at you and … well … make it seem like something is there that isn’t.”

After I finally figured out what he was worried about I told him, “You mean she’ll try and make me jealous. Don’t worry about it. I trust you.”

Surprised he asked, “Just like that?”

I smiled at him because it was so obvious it really bothered him. “You’re an easy man to trust Carmine … at least for me.”

Well, one thing led to another and we didn’t wind up going down to the camp until early the next morning.