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 …”
“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.”