It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Monday, December 15, 2014

41

Jorj loaded the last of the wood blocks and fastened on the lid of the burner with a hoop and clamp. "This has to 'brew up' awhile, to get enough gases to burn right. In about ten more minutes we'll be off." Josep looked dubiously at the trailer, filled with chunked firewood, shackled to the drawbar.           "How far will this get you?"
    "Over the first hill, maybe. Good dry wood is not an issue under these conditions, though. Bolo can bust up some old lumber for me in the next valley. The real danger is, I'll start my own forest fire and then we'd lose Deerie for good. Not to mention me and Mr. Bolo."
    "Then we must be very careful, Mr. Jorj," replied Bolo solemnly.
    "It will be an epic journey," smiled Josep. " I wish I could be with you two. The Lord watch between me and thee..."
    "...when we are absent from one another." Jorj clasped hands with Josep, and then Bolo did the same.

***
   
The child had been doing calisthenics and now seemed to be resting, with a knee or foot thrust against Karen's navel. She looked out the long, low windows of the Control Room, as she passed through to the meeting room. Not much of a world I'm bringing you into, kid. Sorry about that. The foot pressed a little harder.
    Tomma and Armon arrived, not looking especially comfortable with each other. Behind them came Emilio. All were disheveled, sweaty, and dirty, and with their close-cropped heads, had the appearance of lightly toasted demons – they looked like bandits, in fact. As she had done before many times, whenever she noticed this, Karen reached up and rubbed her own crew cut. When would she get used to it?
    Marcee, who was nearing term, drifted heavily in and sank into a chair. She had found a large sheet of paper somewhere; it looked as though it had been a page from a ledger of some kind. By folding
and re-folding, she had made it into a fan, which she spread and began fanning herself.
    Avery rolled in, in his red chair, looked over the room, and rolled up to the empty space at the table next to Marcee. "When are you due?"
    "Towards the end of the next moon, sir."
    He looked past her to Karen. "And, since we're on the subject, you?"
    "Probably before the moon after harvest, sir."
    "Harvest. Hmmhm." He furrowed his brow.
    Emilio looked round the table. "I am unused to seeing such a table without Doctor Tom, or Elsa, Ellen and the other Elders present."
    "Age has crept up on some of us more quickly than in former times," replied Avery. "Dr. Tom, only in the last moon, has begun talking in circles. Mrs. Ames may not last the summer. My mom's active but tires easily; she keeps asking those round her to get her back to her old post on Ball Butte but I'm not sure they even have a way, now, to do that. And so on. How did Mrs. Lazar seem to you?" he turned again to Karen.
    "She's very helpful to Mrs. Ames and still useful to Dr. Marcee – yes? –" Marcee nodded, and handed the fan to Karen. "– but seems terribly uninterested in the future, if you know what I mean."
Avery nodded. "Same with old Maggie, though she hasn't noticed it herself. And Dr. Savage is dealing with the advanced stages of – "
    "Rheumatoid arthritis. And probably lupus," offered Marcee.
    " – right. So, you see, the Council has moved on, at least for the moment."
    Emilio pursed his lips, then leaned forward with his next query. "Ro-eena? Cal?"
    "Well, there it is. Record-keeping was big with Mom and Dad, but we're down to a hundred and twenty, with more to do than we can do. To stay alive, we're going on short rations with all that civilization stuff."
    "Ah."
    Avery twisted his wheels a bit so as to directly face Armon of Bledsoe's. "So here you are, Mr. Armon, you're in – not at, but in – a Council meeting, more or less duly constituted. Feel the power?"
All eyes fell upon Armon, who fidgeted a bit in his chair, then placed his massive arms upon the tables, fingers laced together. "I – uh, I get it, so maybe you could get on with the meetin'?"
    "Depends. Anything more you can tell us about that wire across the stairs at Hall?"
    Karen, still fanning herself gratefully, saw Armon tense up, and from the corner of her eye she also noticed Avery's right hand was not resting on his wheelchair's armrest or wheel but on the pommel of his throwing knife. I would be fanning myself at such a moment, she thought. But probably there were enough good hands in the room that the situation, if it were one, was covered. She kept fanning.
Armon looked down at the table. "I'll tell you all I know, and it isn't much. Some of us were doing a lot of grousing about Ridge – "
    Avery watched him. "Bledsoes and Maggies?"
    "And a few – a very few Russells and Wendlers. And as we weren't talking much to anybody else, with so much work in hand, we went round and round and made out Ridge and Hall and Ames was, like settin' 'emselves up for th' big britches, like."
    "Sure. So someone wanted to, shall we say, 'restore democracy.'"
    "I can tell you two things. One, wasn't me. If I'd wanted to do that, it woulda been way too soon, nothin' was organized enough by then."
    Avery smiled. "I like the sound of that; it's an honesty I can appreciate."
    Emilio and Tomma nodded assent.
    "Two, don't know who did. Still don't. If I did, I'd take it outa their hide."
    "I really think you might. So what was that at the bottom of the stairs?" Avery jerked his chin toward Karen, who by this time had returned the fan to Marcee.
    "I, uh, I tried to take advantage of the moment. Break up the power structure, y'could say."
    "Was that well thought out, do you think?"
    Armon tilted his head sideways, and his face took on a surprisingly childlike expression.
    "Nope."
    Avery's smile broadened. "Mr. Armon, I think you're coming along nicely. With the assent of the others present, I'll speak for us all and say that we won't ask you to bring anyone to Council if you find they had a hand in it – for now. Please do, in such an event, explain the reality of Creek politics once: which is all for all. And then tell them if you see further activity proposed or undertaken along these lines, that you will bring them to the Council of which you are a full member. That work for you?"
    Armon looked as if a great weight had been lifted from his broad shoulders. "Uhh, yeah. Does."
    "Great. All in favor here?"
    Karen added her voice to the others, reluctantly.
    Avery noticed. "Seeing as we need everyone if we can possibly manage it. Now, before we proceed with the agenda, anything to say to our one-armed hellion here?" Avery gestured with his chin again.
    Armon, clear-eyed, for once, turned to Karen. "I apologize. For my attitude below and lyin' about it above."
    Karen looked up at him. "Accepted." Right up to the moment you backslide. And not a second after.
    Avery reached into the slim saddlebag of his chair, fished out a spiral-bound blue notepad with yellow daisies on the cover, and slapped it on the table.
    "Agenda."
    Karen looked over at Tomma, who had slumped in his seat. "Distracted?"
    "Yes."
    "Wilson's got a great crew; they'll think of something." She turned. "Mr. Avery, shall we get Tomma's report first, so he can go connect with any rescue attempt that might be going forward?"
"A very kind thought, Mrs. Allyn. Tomma, your progress?"

***

Vernie fell again, his legs turned to jelly from heat and exhaustion. Errol and Wilson stripped off his tools, weapons and pack, and lifted him to his feet. Billee, who had forged ahead, turned back to face them, illuminated by the flaring of gases in the cloud behind them. Trees all around were bending as the fire fed itself air.
    Wilson pondered for a moment whether to try for the saddle of Ridge or follow the river toward Bridge. As he thought, the wind seemed to intensify; a branch fell heavily somewhere. The roar of the burn deepened. As one, the men turned to see what Billee, now open-mouthed, was watching. A tower of flame rose from the mountain they had just descended. The fire was not only torching trees and everything else on the heights, but lifting much of the fuel into itself to burn in the upper air.      
    From the looming mushroom-shaped cap of the steam-and-flame-laced column, blackened sticks and even small rocks showered down, glittering with sparks, creating spot fires all along the broad slope behind them. A snake-like shape fell from above, smoking, close by, and set a cedar tree alight.
    "Blow-up," said Wilson, matter-of-factly. "Never mind Ridge. We'll make for Lawson's."
    Billee broke her reverie. "There's nothing there!"
    "That's the idea! The whole place already burned once, and there's still the cellar."
Billee scooped up Vernie's things and led out. Half-walking, half-carrying Vernie, the men followed her down to the almost-dry river, crossed the water ankle-deep, scrambled up the other side, and emerged from the cottonwoods into such daylight as the offered. In less than half an hour, they came to the burned-over farmyard and shell of the house with its hollowed-out stone walls, and raced up the steps.
    Within the walls, the floor had collapsed, and burned joists and the like lay in a tangle, with a few weeds sprouted among them. Wilson and his crew from Ridge, during the New Moon War, had attacked Wolf's rear guard here, sequestered such things as could easily be carried away, and set the place on fire to deny the bandits a provisioned retreat.
    With care, realizing that much of the wreckage was capable of giving way beneath them, the crew picked their way across the charred heap of timbers to the staircase, only partly burned, that led to the cellar. Wilson and Errol helped Vernie, who had recovered somewhat; Billee turned back once more to see what she might and report it to the others.
    The great fire had slowed upon reaching the river. Cottonwoods and willows had scorched but were steaming more than burning. Horsetails and nettles had merely wilted; but sparks from the timber to the south had showered onto the open field with its dry grasses; and what amounted to a prairie fire was advancing upon the homestead. She ran down the stone steps.
    Space among shattered Mason jars and splintered crates had been made for Vernie. Wilson and Errol, breathing heavily, sat at his head and feet, their backs to the pantry shelves. Billee told them what she had seen.
    "All to the good," replied Wilson.
    "How so?" wheezed Errol, as he dug out a bottle of the slimy but now much-appreciated creek water for Vernie.
    "The grass won't be enough fuel to cook us, down here; th' wind will carry th' smoke away from us for a couple of hands yet; and as far as th' Creek's chances go, this valley will hold up things for a day or two. We might make it and th' Creek might make it."
    "What if the wind changes and we get smoked out?"
    "We might have to bury our faces in some of that dirt over there and breathe through it that till th' smoke lifts. Might not even need to, though."
    "When can we leave?" asked Billee.
    "No way to know. If th' fire goes down to th' big valley, we might be able to follow it round to Bridge and get home tomorrow. If it goes th' other way, same plan."
    "And if it goes both ways?"
    "Still same plan. Th' main thing is, we got down out of the woods. No way we were gonna make it up there."
    Vernie passed the bottle to Wilson, who took a few swallows and gingerly wiped at his swollen lips. "Bee, ya done good up above Blue Creek. Real good."
    If Billee's face had not been as sooty as her hands, he might have noticed her blush.
    A slight noise above drew their attention. On the top step stood a singed bobcat. It looked as if it were considered whether to join them in their hideaway.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

40


       Ro-eena came into the PX and almost bumped into Juanita Molinero, who was carrying a very large and heavy stock-pot with Guchi.
       "Oh, hi, Ro-eena," said Juanita. "You are may be just in time to take this side of this thing from me and help Guchi get it to the tables, yes?"
       "Well, I'm still on upstairs and Doc Mary asked me to go get her a beer."
       "I am not may be as happy as I could wish with this use of the refrigeration units, but Doctor Mary does outrank me; go around us and we will 'carry on.'" Juanita smiled.
       Ro-eena continued on her mission, and Juanita and Guchi, almost staggering, brought the pot to the dining area. Karen sat at the nearest table with her first Creek friend, Mrs. Ames, and elderess Ava Lazar. Karen jumped up to make way for the pot.
       "What's in it, dears?" asked Mrs. Lazar.
       "It is mostly a broth from beef jerky and suet, I am afraid," replied Juanita, looking at Mrs. Ames sympathetically. "With some grabbled potatoes and garden leaves thrown in."
       "Maybe a little oats, too. Not much," added Guchi. They both smiled apologetically.
       "It will be what we will give thanks for, my dears." Mrs. Lazar patted Juanita's hand. "Thank you both, and we will share it with the other tables." Juanita and Guchi nodded appreciatively, and left for the kitchen.
       "Mn-nh-rnh!" said Mrs. Ames, wagging her head at a crooked angle.
       "Yes, that's right," nodded Mrs. Lazar. "You feel for the cows and the oxen; but, you know, we had really run out of ways to feed them, and we must put away everything we can, to see another year."
       Karen set out bowls, then, finding a ladle hung from the lip of the stock pot, dipped for each of them and also for others who came to them with their bowls.
       The entire Creek, carrying what they could, had migrated to the depths of Ridge. For several days, parties of three or five had made their way up the winding ox-cart road, bringing weapons, clothing, tools, medications, grains, crocks of fermented vegetables and sacks of dried fruits. A significant portion of the food had once been their prized cattle and sheep. Most of these had now been slaughtered; the rest, along with all the chickens, had been left with gates open in all directions, to seek such sustenance and to escape such fire as they might encounter.
       The horses had been deemed of civil and military necessity and would be brought in at the last moment. Their hay was already in storage at Ridge. Currently they were all away with "runners," taking water and sustenance to those on the firelines, or seeking for the missing smoke teams. As there could not be enough hay for all the animals that might need it, there would be much beef and mutton on the menu for some time to come.
       Karen sat down to Mrs. Ames' bowl, pulling it to her and then taking up the spoon. She dipped it in the soup, which steamed enticingly, and blew on it a couple of times, then sampled a few drops to gauge temperature before offering it to Mrs. Ames.
      Mrs. Lazar shook her head. "Ah, when I was a girl, how different was my world. Do you know, I have not seen electric lighting, and food cooked so – it would be over twenty years, I am sure. And ventilation – do you hear the fans?" She reached up with a paper napkin to dab at Mrs. Ames' chin.
       "Yes, replied Karen. "To me they are entirely new, or anyway since before coming to Ridge. I'm not sure I have seen paper used in this way, either." She offered Mrs. Ames another spoonful.
       "Oh, yes, you were the Underground Girl. Well," sighed Mrs. Lazar, "I was my family's treasure – the best schools, and Temple school as well. I had fine clothes, and we all went to Temple for Shabbos, and we observed festivals and did everything as it was commanded. A strict but not entirely unhappy upbringing. I meant to go to Israel, to work on a kibbutz. But then everything changed. No Israel, for starters."
       "I know a little about the wars. But tell me about 'kibbutz'."
       "To tell, now, maybe it's not so much. It is a commune, may be an agricultural commune. Much like our Creek. But the children were raised all together and the parents, they maybe worked in the orange groves." She gave Mrs. Lazar a pat with the napkin at the sagging corner of her mouth.
       "But you didn't get to go."
       "No, everything just blew up, as you might say. And then we were on the run."
       "Your family?"
       "My family? All my people, everyone from the Temple, we were hunted. The Klux army looked for us in holes in the earth, and came to kill us as if we were rats that had been at the grain."
       "Why?"
       "'Why'? We were Jewish, that has always been for some enough 'why'."
       "You had – you had a husband?"
       "Ah, listen to the girl. She too is a widow – it is in her voice. Yes, I had a good man, and children, and I lost everyone, except a granddaughter. I raised Aleesha here."
       "Oh." Karen set down the spoon.
       "'Oh', she says, and her eyes fill with tears for me, and for my family, a little. You are a toughie but you have a heart, and I thank God for you." Mrs. Lazar smiled sadly, and picked up the spoon for Mrs. Ames.
       "Mnahh!" said Mrs. Ames emphatically.
       "Are we done?" asked Karen. 
    Mrs. Ames shook her head. "No, I think she wants you to know she lost her family in the same way. Her man was dark like Mr. Perkins. He and her children were hunted too – by that monster, Magee."
       "Why did he do these things?"
       "Doctor Tom seems to know something about him, from the Murchisons. He tells me Magee joined the Klux to survive, and rose through the ranks. He hunted us because it is what the Klux did. Himself, he cared little either way. A life, to him, it is something to put out, like a candle. What they used to call a professional soldier."
       "Weren't the Murchisons professional?"
       "Oh, my dear!"
       "It's a reasonable question," said a man's voice. Karen recognized it as that of Avery Murchison, who must have rolled quietly up behind her. She felt her face go hot.
       Avery rolled round behind Mrs. Ames, and looked over at Karen. "It's all in whatever cause you sign onto. Or, if that cause falters, you may sign onto no more than your own survival, or perhaps even sign onto a cause you think you can believe in. My parents believed in the United States of America. Then, left to their own devices, they dreamed up this community and gave their loyalty to that. Mr. Magee never fully believed in the Klux – he believes in himself. But while they lasted, he was their most feared captain, and whomever they sought to destroy, he destroyed. It was what used to be called a 'job.' It paid in food."
       Karen remembered again the young man with blue eyes that had died on top of her. "We were looking for food." So had she been. Was that what the Creek was to her – a job?
    "I know," said Avery, watching her. "Maybe these things don't bear too much looking into."
       "These troubles may be good for us in the long run," offered Mrs. Lazar.
       "How so?" Avery reached for a bowl.
       "'Every thing that may abide the fire, ye shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean.'"
       "'Leviticus' again?"
       "Numbers." Mrs. Lazar turned to Karen. "Youth is not all of wisdom, though I think more highly of this young man than he believes."
       Bobbo came to the table, carrying his new twenty-two single-shot rifle and the sword that had been Karen's. "Sirs."
       "Report?" asked Avery.
       "Two smoke parties are in; third one not heard from yet."
       Karen asked, "Which party is still out?"
       "Wilson's. They were the farthest away, and the fire on the ridges has already passed their last known position. We're still hoping; there is some open ground."
       Karen could think of nothing more to say than "thank you;" but her heart ached for her friends.
       Avery thanked Bobbo as well, and sent him for some dinner. He reached for his chair wheels.
       Karen touched his armrest. "Mr. Avery?"
       "Yes, Karen."
       "'Sirs'?"
       "Consider yourself promoted. There's a meeting in about an hour; we'll put a bell on the pee-ay – two rings. Be there; meeting room off the Control Room."
       "Yes, sir."

:::
     
Jorj loaded the last of the wood blocks and fastened on the lid of the burner with a hoop and clamp. "This has to 'brew up' awhile, to get enough gases to burn right. In about ten more minutes we'll be off."
       Josep looked dubiously at the trailer, filled with chunked firewood, shackled to the drawbar. "How far will this get you?"
       "Over the first hill, maybe. Good dry wood is not an issue under these conditions, though. Bolo can bust up some old lumber for me in the next valley. The real danger is, I'll start my own forest fire and then we'd lose Deerie for good. Not to mention me and Mr. Bolo."
       "Then we must be very careful, Mr. Jorj," replied Bolo solemnly.
       "It will be an epic journey," smiled Josep. " I wish I could be with you two. The Lord watch between me and thee..."
       "...when we are absent from one another." Jorj clasped hands with Josep, and then Bolo did the same.

:::

The child had been doing calisthenics and now seemed to be resting, with a knee or foot thrust against Karen's navel. She looked out the long, low windows of the Control Room, as she passed through to the meeting room. Not much of a world I'm bringing you into, kid. Sorry about that. The foot pressed a little harder.
     Tomma and Armon arrived, not looking especially comfortable with each other. Behind them came Emilio. All were disheveled, sweaty, and dirty, and with their close-cropped heads, had the appearance of lightly toasted demons – they looked like bandits, in fact. As she had done before many times, whenever she noticed this, Karen reached up and rubbed her own crew cut. When would she get used to it?
     Marcee, who was nearing term, drifted heavily in and sank into a chair. She had found a large sheet of paper somewhere; it looked as though it had been a page from a ledger of some kind. By folding and re-folding, she had made it into a fan, which she spread and began fanning herself.
       Avery rolled in, in his red chair, looked over the room, and rolled up to the empty space at the table next to Marcee. "When are you due?"
       "Towards the end of the next moon, sir."
       He looked past her to Karen. "And, since we're on the subject, you?"
       "Probably before the moon after harvest, sir."
       "Harvest. Hmmhm." He furrowed his brow.
       Emilio looked round the table. "I am unused to seeing such a table without Doctor Tom, or Elsa, Ellen and the other Elders present."
       "Age has crept up on some of us more quickly than in former times," replied Avery. "Dr. Tom, only in the last moon, has begun talking in circles. Mrs. Ames may not last the summer. My mom's active but tires easily; she keeps asking those round her to get her back to her old post on Ball Butte but I'm not sure they even have a way, now, to do that. And so on. How did Mrs. Lazar seem to you?" he turned again to Karen.
       "She's very helpful to Mrs. Ames and still useful to Dr. Marcee – yes? –" Marcee nodded, and handed the fan to Karen. "– but seems terribly uninterested in the future, if you know what I mean."
       Avery nodded. "Same with old Maggie, though she hasn't noticed it herself. And Dr. Savage is dealing with the advanced stages of – "
       "Rheumatoid arthritis. And probably lupus," offered Marcee.
       " – right. So, you see, the Council has moved on, at least for the moment."
       Emilio pursed his lips, then leaned forward with his next query. "Ro-eena? Cal?"
      "Well, there it is. Record-keeping was big with Mom and Dad, but we're down to a hundred and twenty, with more to do than we can do. To stay alive, we're going on short rations with all that civilization stuff."
      "Ah."
      Avery twisted his wheels a bit so as to directly face Armon of Bledsoe's. "So here you are, Mr. Armon, you're in – not at, but in – a Council meeting, more or less duly constituted. Feel the power?"
       All eyes fell upon Armon, who fidgeted a bit in his chair, then placed his massive arms upon the tables, fingers laced together. "I – uh, I get it, so maybe you could get on with the meetin'?"
       "Depends. Anything more you can tell us about that wire across the stairs at Hall?"
       Karen, still fanning herself gratefully, saw Armon tense up, and from the corner of her eye she also noticed Avery's right hand was not resting on his wheelchair's armrest or wheel but on the pommel of his throwing knife. would be fanning myself at such a moment, she thought. But probably there were enough good hands in the room that the situation, if it were one, was covered. She kept fanning.
       Armon looked down at the table. "I'll tell you all I know, and it isn't much. Some of us were doing a lot of grousing about Ridge – "
       Avery watched him. "Bledsoes and Maggies?"
       "And a few – a very few Russells and Wendlers. And as we weren't talking much to anybody else, with so much work in hand, we went round and round and made out Ridge and Hall and Ames was, like settin' 'emselves up for th' big britches, like."
       "Sure. So someone wanted to, shall we say, 'restore democracy.'"
       "I can tell you two things. One, wasn't me. If I'd wanted to do that, it woulda been way too soon, nothin' was organized enough by then."
       Avery smiled. "I like the sound of that; it's an honesty I can appreciate."
       Emilio and Tomma nodded assent.
       "Two, don't know who did. Still don't. If I did, I'd take it outa their hide."
       "I really think you might. So what was that at the bottom of the stairs?" Avery jerked his chin toward Karen, who by this time had returned the fan to Marcee.
       "I, uh, I tried to take advantage of the moment. Break up the power structure, y'could say."
       "Was that well thought out, do you think?"
       Armon tilted his head sideways, and his face took on a surprisingly childlike expression.
       "Nope."
       Avery's smile broadened. "Mr. Armon, I think you're coming along nicely. With the assent of the others present, I'll speak for us all and say that we won't ask you to bring anyone to Council if you find they had a hand in it – for now. Please do, in such an event, explain Creek policy once: which is all for all. And then tell them if you see further activity proposed or undertaken along these lines, that you will bring them to the Council of which you are a full member. That work for you?"
       Armon looked as if a great weight had been lifted from his broad shoulders. "Uhh, yeah. Does."
       "Great. All in favor here?"
       Karen added her voice to the others, reluctantly.
     Avery noticed. "Seeing as we need everyone if we can possibly manage it. Now, before we proceed with the agenda, anything to say to our one-armed hellion here?" Avery gestured with his chin again.
       Armon, clear-eyed, for once, turned to Karen. "I apologize. For my attitude below and lyin' about it above."
       Karen looked up at him. "Accepted." Right up to the moment you backslide. And not a second after.
       Avery reached into the slim saddlebag of his chair, fished out a spiral-bound blue notepad with yellow daisies on the cover, and slapped it on the table.
       "Agenda."
       Karen looked over at Tomma, who had slumped in his seat. "Distracted?"
       "Yes."
       "Wilson's got a great crew; they'll think of something." She turned. "Mr. Avery, shall we get Tomma's report first, so he can go connect with any rescue attempt that might be going forward?"
       "A very kind thought, Mrs. Allyn. Tomma, your progress?"

:::

Vernie fell again, his legs turned to jelly from heat and exhaustion. Errol and Wilson stripped off his tools, weapons and pack, and lifted him to his feet. Billee, who had forged ahead, turned back to face them, illuminated by the flaring of gases in the cloud behind them. Trees all around were bending as the fire fed itself air.
       Wilson pondered for a moment whether to try for the saddle of Ridge or follow the river toward Bridge. As he thought, the wind seemed to intensify; a branch fell heavily somewhere. The roar of the burn deepened. As one, the men turned to see what Billee, now open-mouthed, was watching.        A tower of  flame rose from the mountain they had just descended. The fire was not only torching trees and everything else on the heights, but lifting much of the fuel into itself to burn in the upper air. From the looming mushroom-shaped cap of the steam-and-flame-laced column, blackened sticks and even small rocks showered down, glittering with sparks, creating spot fires all along the broad slope behind them. A snake-like shape fell from above, smoking, close by, and set a cedar tree alight.
       "Blow-up," said Wilson, matter-of-factly. "Never mind Ridge. We'll make for Lawson's."
       Billee broke her reverie. "There's nothing there!"
       "That's the idea! The whole place already burned once, and there's still the cellar."
       Billee scooped up Vernie's things and led out. Half-walking, half-carrying Vernie, the men followed her down to the almost-dry river, crossed the water ankle-deep, scrambled up the other side, and emerged from the cottonwoods into such daylight as the offered. In less than half an hour, they came to the burned-over farmyard and shell of the house with its hollowed-out stone walls, and raced up the steps.
       Within the walls, the floor had collapsed, and burned joists and the like lay in a tangle, with a few weeds sprouted among them. Wilson and his crew from Ridge, during the New Moon War, had attacked Wolf's rear guard here, sequestered such things as could easily be carried away, and set the place on fire to deny the bandits a provisioned retreat. 
    With care, realizing that much of the wreckage was capable of giving way beneath them, the crew picked their way across the charred heap of timbers to the staircase, only partly burned, that led to the cellar. Wilson and Errol helped Vernie, who had recovered somewhat; Billee turned back once more to see what she might and report it to the others.
       The great fire had slowed upon reaching the river. Cottonwoods and willows had scorched but were steaming more than burning. Horsetails and nettles had merely wilted; but sparks from the timber to the south had showered onto the open field with its dry grasses; and what amounted to a prairie fire was advancing upon the homestead. She ran down the stone steps.
      Space among shattered Mason jars and splintered crates had been made for Vernie. Wilson and Errol, breathing heavily, sat at his head and feet, their backs to the pantry shelves. Billee told them what she had seen.
       "All to the good," replied Wilson.
       "How so?" wheezed Errol, as he dug out a bottle of the slimy but now much-appreciated creek water for Vernie.
       "The grass won't be enough fuel to cook us, down here; th' wind will carry th' smoke away from us for a couple of hands yet; and as far as th' Creek's chances go, this valley will hold up things for a day or two. We might make it and th' Creek might make it."
       "What if the wind changes and we get smoked out?"
       "We might have to bury our faces in some of that dirt over there and breathe through it that till th' smoke lifts. Might not even need to, though."
       "When can we leave?" asked Billee.
       "No way to know. If th' fire goes down to th' big valley, we might be able to follow it round to Bridge and get home tomorrow. If it goes th' other way, same plan."
       "And if it goes both ways?"
       "Still same plan. Th' main thing is, we got down out of the woods. No way we were gonna make it up there." 

    Vernie passed the bottle to Wilson, who took a few swallows and gingerly wiped at his swollen lips. "Bee, ya done good up above Blue Creek. Real good."
       If Billee's face had not been as sooty as her hands, he might have noticed her blush.
       A slight noise above drew their attention. On the top step stood a singed bobcat. It looked as if it were considering whether to join them in their hideaway.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

39


"So, is it dead yet?" Vernie, sweating profusely, sat down on a convenient rock in the shade.
       Wilson leaned on the McLeod and took in the scene. They had plowed up the ground for a good twenty feet in all directions. "As good as. Best we can do, anyway. Mr. Errol, could you whistle up Bee and have her lead out to th' top of th' ridge? We should look on the other side before heading out."
       The sun had by now moved well to the west, and hung low and red in a citrus sky.
       Billee answered Errol's short blast with two of her own and came toiling up through the ferns.
       "How is it out there?" asked Wilson.
       She glared. "Still quiet; down to one buzzard."
       Errol and Vernie looked amused. Wilson wasn't quite sure how to respond, and ended up rattling the map. He tapped it.
       "Got another spot marked on the west end of this spur, only half a mile away. We could look at it, then bed down for th' night. But we should peek over th' top before traveling along th' ridgeline."
       "Sure." Billee headed off past the blasted fir.
       "'K, smoke jumpers," said Wilson. "Another sip, packs on, tools up, sidehill till we get the all clear."
       Instead, there was a long blast on Billee's whistle. They dropped gear, picked out their weapons, and raced up to the ridgeline.
       Billee was not under cover at all, but standing in a saddle of the mountain, in a small opening full of dried-up bear grass, facing south. As they came up on either side of her, each understood immediately what had prompted her signal. 
       On the far side of the valley a bright orange glow backlit the underside of a cloud bank of smoke that seemed much closer than they would have guessed, earlier in the day. Even as they watched, a
tongue of red flame reached up from beneath a tall tree on the opposite side and spread to its upper branches. The wind from the heat set all the firs on that ridgeline dancing, then one and another of them seemed to explode into flame. Showers of sparks cascaded down into the shadows on the north slope before them, and hot spots flared and grew in contrast to the surrounding darkness. The sound of pitch pockets bursting, like cannon fire, came to them across the wide air, and a small river, a few pools of which had not yet run dry, began reflecting the inferno up to them from the valley below.
       A deer ran up into the clearing, making directly for them. Billee and Vernie jumped left; Wilson and Errol to the right. The doe made for the gap, leaped through, and was gone.


       "Eff!" said Vernie.
       "That's it, folks," said Wilson, matter-of-factly. "We're very done here; let's run for home."

:::

"Mullins." Lockerby offered a sardonic salute, touching the brim of his slouch hat with his forefinger.
       "Lockerby."
       "We've got that Cat running and are good to go."
       "Fine; we'll line out, as the Boss says and take it as it goes." Mullins waved the crawler forward. The rest of the column would wait and move up whenever the Cat was in danger of rolling too far ahead. Eastsiders, almost ghostly on their horses in the gray dawn, filtered into the forest on either flank.
       The D-8 rumbled across the clearing and reached the point where the Pilgrim Trail disappeared into the undergrowth, between a burned-out Chevy Volt and a Mercedes delivery truck lying on its side, with a tree emerging from the driver-side window. The wide blade settled on the ground and the Cat inched ahead, ripping small trees out of broken pavement or shearing them off at ground level. The ancient dead vehicles groaned as the blade nudged them aside. Bones, which had been hidden beneath the truck, shattered as the blade came to them.
       After about eighty feet, the mound of detritus piling up in front of the blade began to tower over it, spilling splintered wood and dirt between the hydraulic arms. The driver reversed levers, walking the machine back while also raising the blade slightly, then lowered it again and shoved the left lever forward, easing the huge machine a quarter turn to the 
right, and pushing aside the pile so as to be able to make a fresh assault.
       "S'gonna be a long day, Mull." Lockerby leaned back against the bow of the LAV-35.
       "You know it, Lockie. Hot, too." Mullins squatted next to him, cradling a short-barreled Mossberg pump shotgun in his hands. "I give it about three hours after th' sun comes up, they'll be howling to park that thing in th' shade."
       "How far is it to the first objective?"
       "Th' ghost town? 'Bout sixty miles."
       "Eff, at this pace we'll be a week gettin' there."
       "More than a week. Even though some of th' terrain is not this radical. The stuff they made this road out of has slowed the woods down some. But, yah, s'still a long slog and, y'know, we've only got so many replacement parts for that museum piece up there. If we get it over Rice Hill we'll be on our way."
      They looked up at the smoke cloud to the northeast. The day before, like a malevolent storm, it had towered to seemingly stratospheric heights, in appearance a cross between a nuclear blast cloud and a cumulonimbus, gray and white with a burnt-sienna halo. This morning, it mostly covered the horizon like a pall of heavy smog.
       "Not comin' our way, is it?" asked Lockerby.
       No, if anythin', I think it's goin' the same way we are. With any luck it'll clear th' way a bit for th' column."
       Lockerby leaned around the right front tire of the LAV and looked over their infantry. Sitting on the ground, men wearing a motley collection of camo and fatigue ex-Army wear and assorted other gear – a few had armor, even fewer wore MOLLEs – most had assorted old backpacks, including one that was covered with cartoons of a duck in a sailor suit – they sat along the edge of the clearing, bows and crossbows in hand, most of them.
       "Y'know, Mullins, I could wish th' morale was a little higher here at th' outset. We're a glum bunch."
       "Know it. There's a few things we c'n do to perk 'em up, but not much, short of lucking into a crew of women Pilgrims. It bugs 'em that the Eastsiders have stuff they don't. Tell ya what, who's th' glummest?"
       "I worry about Kinnet; I think he grouses too much to th' others when he thinks I can't hear 'im."
       "Call him over."
       "Sir." Lockerby stood away from the tire.
       "Kinnet!"
       A man about sixty feet away grabbed his crossbow, stood up from among his fellows, and trotted up to the head of the motorized column. He touched his hat. "Lockerby."
       "See Mullins here."
     "Lockerby."
     "Kinnet."
       Kinnet stepped round to the front. "Mullins, sir."
       "Kinnet, my man."
       "Sir."
       "Life treatin' you alright?"
       "Sir? Uh, yes, sir, it is, sir."
       Lockerby could see the man was in a swivet; was he about to be made an example of?
         Mullins stood up and patted the armored bow of the LAV.
       "How would you like to learn to drive this honey?"

:::

       Vernie felt almost as if he were drowning; practically running all night long was one thing; but the day had dawned warm and was now hot already, and their water was gone. His side troubled him more and more; he ran, holding it as if he were afraid it would burst, and, with both hands occupied, found that sweat was pouring into his eyes faster than he could blink it away. He collided with a tree trunk that lay at right angles to the ground, four feet up in the air.
       "Vernie, you got to go under those." Wilson's voice, but Vernie could not tell from where. He crawled under the log, but met another, lower one, and stood up, struggling to climb over it.
       "Wilson, he's done in. We all are, really; I've seen you fall down a couple of times yourself," Errol panted.
       "Yeah, know it. Dammit, we must have gone left of the creek. Now we're in a blowdown. Everybody take five. Bee, you seem to recover quickest, when you're up to it, scout around t'th' right? For a way t'th' water?"
       Billee's eyes thanked him for the rest. She needed it as much as the others, but would give her last ounce of strength not to admit it. She sat down hard, then rolled over onto her side, trying to get control of her ragged breath. It hurt to breathe; her throat and lungs screamed for water, and she knew her lips were cracked and swollen. Not very attractive like this, now, are we? she asked herself, mockingly. But at least we'll be first up. Maybe ... but she was too dry to complete any thought about affairs of the heart.
       They might have rested longer, but Errol's sharp ears picked up the change in tone of the fire's voice. It had roared up the back of the ridge in front of them, the day before, cooking resins in the timber and exploding trees left and right. In the night it had moved more slowly, working its way down to the riverbed by fits and starts, showers of sparks among dry grasses leading the way. Now it was growling and booming again, climbing a dessicated south slope through the treetops. From the sound, it should cross yet another ridge within the hour. Their lacerated skins, their scratched faces, their leaden arms and legs and frightened beating hearts would not long abide the arrival of such an adversary.
      "Wilson?" Errol raised his head.
       "Yah." Wilson swung round. "Bee, how are ya?"
       "On it." She slipped out of her gear, left her bow and precious little rifle resting against it, rolled up, staggered against a conk-encrusted grand fir, then trotted off.
       "Vernie, how are ya?"
       Vernie wheezed a couple of times before replying. "Not great. Help me up in a little bit?"
       "You bet."
       Billee was back before they were up. Giving up on speech, she simply pointed and nodded. This way.
       Helping Billee into her things first, the little group staggered up and made off sidehill behind her, catching their feet on every root and trailing blackberry in their way, till the terrain dropped off precipitously and they all caught at ocean-spray, hazel, and mountain alder saplings as they descended. At last they came to the one thing in the world they hoped to see: Blue Creek.
       Or what was left of it. The drought had stopped the flow of the stream, but by following the dry wash downstream to the north, they came to a pool in deep shade, with fern-lined rock faces to either side. The coolness, as much as the prospect of water, revived them.
       "Don't anybody jump in yet; it'd mess up the drinkin' water," Wilson croaked, then produced an old cup, of bright yellow plastic. He dipped it through the layer of algae on the surface, then brought it up half full, tipped so as not to catch much of the green stuff, then handed it to Billee. "Slowly. Not too much."
       She nodded, took the cup and dipped her cracked lips first, then sipped at it. She handed the cup on to Vernie, who, thirsty as he was, looked at the swirling green and black flecks dubiously.
       "It might kill ya, Vernie. But think of th' alternative." Wilson might have grinned but it would have hurt too much.
       Billee poked at the algae in the pool with her bow, clearing a view into the shallows. "See?" she asked Vernie. Something red flashed on the bottom, backing away from the bow.
       Vernie finished the cup and handed it to Errol, who knelt by the creek and dipped the cup again. "See what?"
       "Crawdad. Dad's a sign of clean water."
       "I was thinking if some of that is blue-green algae..."
       Wilson shrugged. "We all are. We got no choice. But it's early in th' season for bee-gee. Hopefully we won't get anythin' worse than th' runs; giardia. Let's fill all th' canteens, take a quick dip. Two more mountains to cross."
      Billee looked at Vernie, who sat now with his feet in the water, mechanically dipping handfuls of wet green slime onto his head and shoulders. She returned her gaze to Wilson. "Can we even do it?"
       Wilson, surprised, felt the full impact of that gaze. He'd known Billee as a toddler. When the hell did she grow up? I had no idea. "Not really. What we can do, like old Mary says, is go sideways. We'll hit the river at Lawson's and run round to Bridge. It's twice as far, but flat, with a trail."
       An explosion behind them, far up the mountain, heralded the arrival of the fire. Echoes from the burst rolled around the valley and came back to them from the far hills.

:::

Ro-eena stood up, stretched again, and walked over to the field glasses. She almost tripped over Selk, who had been up much of the night. Applying her still-sleepy eyes to the eyepieces, she swung the field of view toward the South Fire. "Oh-oh," she said to the empty Control Room.
       Savage Mary, looking even more frightful with her recently shaved head, rolled in. "I hate that."
     Ro-eena turned to greet her. "Ma'am?"
       "Any time anybody says, 'Oh-oh.' Doc Chaney was working on my old knees once, with me tied down and a bone in my teeth, and he went 'oh-oh' and I spit the bone out and about ripped myself loose. 'What, what?' says I. 'Nothin', says he. 'Whaddya mean, nothin?' says I. 'I know what "oh-oh" means.' Sunnabitch laughed. Oh, well. I'm a prime argument for entropy; I'll never be out of this chair or a bed again. So what's up, kid?"
       "The fire is over Folsom Mountain."
       "Well, we knew that would be right about now. Th' sling psychrometer showed nineteen percent humidity yesterday, and th' duff hygrometer says seven percent at an inch underground, and that's on the north side of Ridge. We are at about th' best conditions for a blow-up I've ever heard of."
       "But we have a smoke team over there, ma'am."
       "Yes, we do. And likely to lose 'em. I can't help 'em, nor you can't help 'em. So we do what we do. Karen and Deela, for example, are loading twenty-twos to beat th' band. Most everybody else is cuttin' fire line. You're watching for more fires."
       "Yes, ma-am."
       "Aw, I shouldn't be hard on ya. Heat's got me crabby. I'm drenched in this naw-ga-hide seat. Show me your South Fire."
       Ro-eena cranked down the tripod a few inches and stepped back. Selk stirred in his blanket and pulled a corner of it over his head. Mary rolled past him and leaned forward in her chair to reach the eyepieces.
       "Mmm ... hmmm ... " Mary panned left and right for a few seconds and wheeled round to face her young friend. A broad, wry smile creased her craggy features. "Yep. Ugly. You might as well look everywhere else but there, honey. It's apt to go to one-oh-five this afternoon, and if it does, that one will be over th' Calapooya and in our laps by sundown. Tell ya what. I'll spell ya here, won't ya run down to th' pee-ex and get me some homebrew. Times like this, about all ya can do is have beer for breakfast."

:::

Marleena sat by the circle of red light on the floor of Roundhouse, rubbing deerhide with her scraper. That light had been red for days; daylight passed through thick clouds of smoke far above the valley, and by the time it reached the smokehole at the peak of the roof, had dimmed considerably. Near the pool of light from the smokehole was the only place she could see to work well, unless she went outside; but outside was too hot these days.
       The area near the firepit and the well was the commons; here meetings were held, and those who felt like eating together did so; toward the walls were the sleeping pallets. The Roundhouse had room in it for a hundred to sleep, though their numbers were down to around fifty. More like forty at the moment she thought sourly, with parties of men gadding off to Oz, as she thought of it in her mind: something from a story of her mother's. Starvation Creek, the Emerald City. Ha! "They have this, they have that! You should see it!" Only one thing she wished to know; if Roundhouse were attacked, would these wonderful wizards come to their aid? "Would they die for us?"
       "They might."
       "Josep! Home at last. Did I say that out loud?" She covered her mouth with her hand. "Have you eaten?"
       "I have Bolo with me; he's looking for Jorj. We have not, and would appreciate food, wife." Josep smiled, shyly.
       Marleena stood up, a bit stiffly, and stepped over to the well, where a bucket stood on a sideboard half full. With an old mug, she dipped up a cupful of water for her man, and gave it to him, then fetched a bag of pemmican strips, handing him one.
       "The Lord be praised for you that you are my wife," Josep said as he took the pemmican.
       "The Lord be praised for you that you are my husband," she replied. She looked round the room. A few of the older people were abed near the walls; someone turned over and lay still. Flies buzzed. "Did not everyone return with you? Where is  Miss Krall?"
       "They are helping with fire lines. Krall has taken up with a fine young man named Tomma. She is enjoying herself and is good for morale. Some of these people have never seen a dog." Josep, chewing, looked round, then spoke with his mouth full. "Roundhouse so empty!"
       "We are in hunting camps. The fires have confused the animals and so the men are killing them and the women are dressing meat and hides. I am keeping an eye on the old people, but they have brought me some work to do, even so."
       "This is always the way with us. We cannot defend ourselves if we hunt enough; and if we are prepared to defend ourselves we cannot hunt enough. And this year there will be no crops and little fish." He looked at the cup with distaste.
       "I am sorry about the water, my husband; the water in the well is very low."
       "And, yes, there is the well. I know you do not like the idea of joining with the people to the south; but they are more than a hundred; they have food; they have weapons, they have electricity and most of them have good hearts."
      "Electricity?"
      "Yes, there is a generator of some kind in a hill."
      "We have electricity. In a way."
      "Yes, when Deerie is running. But she needs most of it for herself; and as Jorj says, when you run a machine it is spending a part of its life."
      "Bolo is looking for Jorj ... "
      "To ask for Deerie, yes. She is needed for the fire lines around the fields at the Creek."
      "I knew it!" Marleena fairly spat the words. "You will lead us there, and give everything we have to these people whom we do not know, and Roundhouse will be no more."
      "It is always wisest, wife, to seek to do the wisest thing. I must find the hunters and hold talk; everyone's mind should be spoken on this thing." Only now did Josep shed a strange backpack that he was carrying; he set it down at her feet.
       "What is this thing?" she asked.
       "It is a kind of packsack that was made in the old days. In it are pieces of dried apples, pears and apricots for the people. Enough for more than half a pound for each of us."
       As Josep expected, this did put another view of the inhabitants of the Creek in Marleena's mind; though he knew she would have to think long and hard.
       "Do you know where I might find Jorj? I must send him back with Bolo if I can."
       Marleena, with eager, shaking hands, tugged at the paracord with which the pack had been cross-tied. "I think, he took one more turn around the fields with Deerie yesterday; so today he would be cleaning out the ashes in the burner and doing what he does with oils and fats."
       Josep reached into the pemmican sack again. "I will go to the Shed, then. It seems the likeliest place. And then I will look for the hunters – are they all upstream?"
       "Yes." Marleena reached into the top of the packsack and filled her hands with dried apples.

:::

Jorj, a late middle-age, balding man with a round nose, was not happy. When he was not happy he sometimes picked at his nose; and already the tip of it was blackened with soot. "Bolo, I like you; and I admire the young chief; but there is such a thing as madness."
       "Yes, Jorj. But Josep says the fields there would feed them and us in good years."
       "That's just it; does this look like a good year to you? Besides, Deerie would never survive the trip. As it is I pray every time I light the tinder in the burn box."
       They stood beside a crawler tractor that was no taller than they were themselves. The tiny 'cat' had seen better days. Once it had been painted green, with yellow accents. Now it was more brown than green, with a six-foot blade, a steel cage, a black seat within the cage, with most of the stuffing long gone. The blade had long ago lost its hydraulics and had been raised and lowered for some time with a prized come-along. 
Above the drawbar a shelf, really a platform, had been added, on which stood a contraption consisting of two tallish cylinders, with an exhaust pipe protruding from the one on the left. Pipes had been led past the driver's seat on either side to the engine. The parts for this adaptation had all been handmade, and though Jorj understood mechanics, he was painfully aware of the unlikelihood of ever replacing them.
       Josep joined the men in the shade of the Shed. "The Lord greet you, Jorj."
       "And the good Lord greet you, Young Josep. But are you not here to grieve my heart?"
       "Ah, would it were not so. With your years should come a 
time of rest. And here I am asking of you the hardest thing yet."
       Jorj noticed his sooty hands and wiped them on a cloth hanging from one of the fir poles of the open shed. "How far away is this Starvation Creek, then? And I must admit I don't much care for the name."
       "You have only two ridgelines to cross. But some of it is trail-breaking."
       "Sounds like you're not coming along, then."
       "I'm going to call a meeting. It may be the time of Migration."
       At that dread word, silence fell over them. They turned as one to look, in the dimming light, at Jorj's beloved fields.