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.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

6


Emilio was proud of the farm's achievements. He explained the pasture rotation, of which Karen had heard before, and showed her the chickens in their movable sheds.

"These things are made of 'chicken wire' and PVC pipe, as there was a lot of both available when we began to farm here. The chickens were running wild; the ones that could breed on their own had done so, and so that's the kind we have. It is a mix, now, of Banty and Araucana, we think."

The names meant nothing to Karen; chickens were new to her.

"If we did not have the wire, we would have to find a way to make enclosures, and to bring in enough food for them. If they continued to run loose as they were doing before, there would be many lost to hawks, wild dogs, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and bobcats. Even the eagles seem interested."

He led her through a gate in an overgrown fence to another pasture, and here were the cows. The shadows were lengthening, and temperatures were dropping a bit in the afternoon breeze, and so the cattle were getting up from the shade and lazily moving toward a water tank, re-purposed from a hot tub, near one of the small windmills dotted around.

"These are a few Devon-Dexter-Whiteface cows. There were Devons and Dexters here when we got here. The Devons were a great surprise; I am told they were rare even before the Undoing. The only bull we could locate for them was a Whiteface. He makes them too much beefy but we get some milk, and some young steers we butcher, and it is a big help. The rest pull farm implements and carts. What we would do here if the people who lived in this valley had killed and eaten everything and then left, I do not know. It is a wonder there is so much to work with."

Emilio waved at the fence line behind them. "The wire is irreplaceable, so we are encouraging hedges. This is blackberry, wild rose, black hawthorn, red grapes, and yellow plum trees mostly. Blackberries, plums, rose hips, a little firewood, and ... rabbits."

He smiled. "Down the valley there is a lady working to domesticate and raise these rabbits. They are not a domestic breed, but we must start somewhere."

"Wasn't there something about a disease in cottontails?" asked Karen, who had read this in an old magazine.

"I have heard that, too, but we have not seen a problem yet."

Emilio knitted his brows. "It has been do-what-we-can and not do-what-we-should, here. There are it may be close to two hundred of us. All food is life. It is not enough muscles here to raise enough food, and yet too much muscles to feed. So we forage and hunt and fish, as the things that live here have increased since the Undoing. The weather seems different, too, than it once was, and there are crop failures. We all work very hard. This has been our best year."

"The failures ... is that why this is called Starvation Creek?"

"Oh – ha ha. Apropos, no? but no, it is named so on an old map. You see the long mountain there?" He pointed to the fir-clad ridge, with its long spine of exposed rock at the top.

"Mm-hmm."

"Of course; you were there before. I am told that long ago a shepherd was caught there in deep snow with some of his flock, and so he could not come down for a long time and to live, he ate some of the sheep, which made his boss angry. But what could he do, eh?" Emilio smiled again, and Karen felt herself smiling in return – a new sensation for her.

"How many years have you farmed here?"

"I am a late arrival myself, but I understand it is seventeen years, this thing. A few people, then more. To farm without diesel or gasoline – not so many knew how to do it. There were a few books, and some elders can read. The rest has been the hard school."

"Experience."

"Yes, and many mistakes. It is not a certain thing, all this work. Failure of a crop, and where will we get enough seed?"

Karen thought of all the "foraging" she had done in abandoned cellars and pantries. A vanishing resource. "There must not be any canned goods any more; not after seventeen years." They walked down toward the next hedge.

"That is very correct, and I see you understand the implications. You have traveled, and so you must know what it is that some people will eat when all of the foods, the crops and the animals are gone."
This was very direct, but it was a fact and facts were to be faced.

Karen was not sure what could or should be asked, but the thought of the two young men, risking their lives, perhaps, to look and listen in the woods upstream brought a question to her lips.
"You say you came late. Did Juanita and the boys come with you?"

"No, I met her here. Raul and David are fraternal twins, and they are natives, born here." Emilio smiled again, but grimly, thought Karen. "When I came to the Creek I was younger than they are now. Late means there was already an established ... "

"Community?"

"An excellent word, I thank you. When I say it has not been easy here, I do not say that it has not been good. It has been so very good, thank-you-Jeeah."

Karen did not ask about the last phrase. Father had taught her to be leery of religions above almost all else, and this sounded like religion.

Emilio opened another gate and they stepped through and stopped. Karen could see acres of broad-leaved plants before them, and a little way farther on, another frame house with a barn, a trailer house and two of the little log houses on either side. Vegetable gardens surrounded the farmhouse, and smoke rose from a mud-and stick chimney added on to the back. The roof of the house had been done over in large cedar shakes.

Emilio turned to Karen, his eyes like dark pools, shining. But there was in them no smile.

"I was, maybe, nine or ten. We do not know. I was found by the Captain in a cage in the encampment of some bandits who were testing the Creek's defenses, over to the west. And my memories from before that do not come to me."

"You were ..." Karen felt the back of her neck grow cold.

"I was to be food, yes. But those particular bandits are no more, mh? So. Over here, we have pumpkins, beets and comfrey, for the cattle in the winter, and it is the responsibility of the Jones household. Beyond Mr. Jones is the Beemans place, oats and buckwheat this year, and a few sheep. And so on, all the way down to the 'mess hall', or Hall, as it is called. But I do not see the boys, though I can see where they have been cutting the comfrey, so I think we will go back now."

Saturday, April 5, 2014

5

"Dr." Tom Chaney, an Elder of Starvation Creek, sat across his "desk," a large oak dining table, from one of the most intense presences he'd ever encountered. He hoped he could will the nonchalance he affected into something like truth; she'd not have much tolerance for insincerity. If any. That hopelessly wild black hair, short because she'd kept it so with that sharp skinning knife, framed a calm face, but seemed to express a wildness coiled within, like a cat's. The morning sun poured golden through the glass between tied-back chenille curtains and onto the floor in a corner.

"I want to thank you for your co-operation in the last week. It was hard for us all; but you seemed to understand about quarantine, which certainly helped a lot."

Karen, dressed in the (washed) clothes in which she'd first come among the Creekers, took in the room without taking her eyes off Tom. Mrs. Ames' kindly face and person, which sat relaxed in a chair beside Karen's, was a help. Karen was not yet prepared to sit alone in a room with any man, even one whose to whom professionalism apparently came first.

"It's all right; my father had told me expect as much most anywhere. Or ... worse. Generally I have seen worse."

"Have you given thought to where you wish to go next? We can escort you to our 'borders', if it is what you wish."

"I was trespassing, I know. But ... you see how it was."

Tom nodded to the window, beyond which lay the mountain, where maples amid the dark firs had begun to shade, in the soft light, into their first touches of autumn color.

"Well, consider your circumstances at the time. After such a journey, with so few provisions, any one of us would have done the same." He watched as she considered the question that had been asked.
"I know that ... that as one who travels, that I shouldn't ..." Here she looked as if she might stammer, which he did not expect from one so self-possessed. What must it be like, to have grown up underground? And then to have to apply rote learning to such different surroundings? To attempt to speak courteously to courteous strangers, with no background in the ways? Tom could wait for her to find her words.

She began anew. "I am mine, and all of you are yours. So I want to ask, to ... to ask. It doesn't ..." She looked to Mrs. Ames, who seemed anxious to encourage.

"Honey," Mrs. Ames patted the arm of Karen's chair. "do you wanta get to know us enough to find out if you'd like to stay awhile?"

Karen's body visibly relaxed a little. "Well, that's close enough. I mean, to begin with, you've all fed and cared for me for days; shouldn't I do some work or something to make a return? And then I might know more about what I could do next."

Tom leaned back in his chair and laughed. "You'd like some chores, maybe study us a bit. I think something could be arranged. We can share enough, about us, that it would help inform your decisions, and yet not share so much as to make you a danger to us should you choose to move on. Something like that?"

Karen thought this over, then nodded.

"Very good," said the doctor. "You should know that, of course, there's been a council over your presence among us, and that what you're requesting is much the same as what we decided was our hope as well. Is that about right?" he looked to Mrs. Ames.

"You got it," she said. "Karen, if you'd like to put up with me for awhile, I'm bettin' we'd find plenty for you to do, 'n some young people to meet, too."

"Put up with?" Idiomatic speech was still a difficulty for Karen.

"Girl, it's like you was raised in a bottle! Why don't we grab your stuff and we'll go over to my place 'n have some eggs and broccoli?"


Mrs. Ames' place was several miles east of the infirmary and one of the last that Karen could see in that direction, as they approached.

Agricultural fields seemed to be laid out to left and right from the road in narrow strips, each with its own access gate along the road, with perhaps a small log bridge across a ditch. Fruit and walnut trees lined the road, and blackberries and grapevines had been ecouraged along all the fence lines.

Wooden frame houses along the valley appeared to have been built, in the old times, about every quarter mile. Some of these had metallic "mobile" homes close by, and a few outbuildings and perhaps a barn. New structures, often of logs, clustered round these, so that the valley's population density was concentrated along the road, which was devolving into an oxcart path. Many places, farther from the main road, had been abandoned and then salvaged. Often only a cluster of oaks with lilacs and flowering quince showed where someone had lived, or a line of utility poles that had long been stripped of wire.

The area was becoming a village.

Karen began to recognize what Creekers looked like, as they met a few along the road. Men and women alike wore trousers and tunics that looked homespun from wool or some other spun yarn or thread, in earth-tone solid colors, and cut to simple patterns. Sheath knives were much in evidence, along with belt pouches. Most often they pushed or pulled old metal or new wooden wheelbarrows or carts, laden with early fall produce, or carried hand tools such as scythes, forks, or hoes.

People appeared, like some in old National Geographics Karen had studied, to have a variety of ethnic backgrounds. This was rare in Karen's experience; something had happened, in the early days of the Undoing, to many who were not white. As someone of mixed background herself, she knew it was significant. Whatever terrible things had been happening to non-whites elsewhere had not happened here. Some stopped to chat briefly with Mrs. Ames and to greet the newcomer. Others simply nodded and passed on by. Only one couple had children.

Small children had been, to Karen, such a rare sight that these she studied with interest. Like their parents, they were black, with eyes brown as hers, but much darker skin. The boy and girl, half her height, were as shy as she was herself, and hid behind the woman, who looked to Karen to be no older than she. All four of the family carried buckets of blackberries.

"Gettin' 'em in for th' winter, hm?" asked Mrs. Ames.

"We are," said the young man, who must be the father, for both children resembled him closely. "We were late getting out for the berries, as the house wasn't done until last quarter moon."

"An' you're in snug, and you'll keep warm?"

"There isn't much wood in the pile yet, and what there is, is green; and there's little food, but we can eat at the mess hall and stay warm there in the winter if we have to."

The mother joined in, with a rich, high voice and an accent new to Karen and beautiful to her ears. "We will be picking apples along the road all tomorrow, and some pears are left; should we bring you some when we come for the milk?"

"You do that; we're out of everythin' but what comes straight from th' cows, but these two c'n shake some butter out for you, I bet." She beamed on the young ones, who grinned back. "An' pick some kale, too; there's lots."

All took their leaves from one another, walking at what seemed to Karen a slow and deliberate pace, but she found this appropriate. Her backpack, though it had only gear in and on it and no provisions, was heavy to her after the last week or so of inactivity, and dug into her narrow shoulders; her legs felt rubbery and she was footsore. The sun, too, was higher now and very warm, and sweat began to sting her eyes.

Mrs. Ames could see the young woman's difficulty. "How ya doin'?"

"I'm all right. My strength must be down."

"I should think so; we're almost there and we'll go straight to the kitchen."

The house was one of the frame houses and was surrounded by a barn, a pumphouse, a chicken shed, and two of the little log cabins, with another under construction. In a field beyond, Karen could see a few cows; "red" ones of different sizes. The day was already hot in the fields, and most of the animals had taken to the shade of trees along the fence line.

Smoke was drifting from a steel chimney at the back of the frame house toward the creek and upstream, fading among cottonwoods.

"That'd be Juanita; she's got th' fire up for some baking and a bit of lunch."

They walked on a grassy path round to the back, and entered the kitchen through a small mudroom filled with boots, shoes, coats, straw hats, and tools.

The kitchen was a step down from the mudroom, as its floor had been removed and the ground beneath leveled and cobbled – cooler in summer, and able to support the weight of an earthen stove. This room had once been several rooms: a kitchen, a pantry, a hallway, and one of several bedrooms. Walls had been knocked out to accommodate a full-size milkroom as well as the rammed-earth stove and oven. The stove had a sheet-steel top with round "eyes" for frying pans, of which several, along with saucepans, hung from hooks suspended from the ceiling. Shelves held dozens of glass jars of various types, labeled with words like "coriander," "dill," and "marjoram." Ropes of onion and garlic hung along the walls, along with tied bundles of lavender and mint.

A young woman, perhaps a few years older than Karen, crouched by the stove, putting short round sticks into the fire with one hand, and shaking a large steel frying pan over an uncovered eye of the stove with the other. Satisfied with the progress of her fire, she turned to greet Karen. She was, to Karen's eyes, like herself: darker than most of those she'd met, with black hair, brown eyes, a slim face with a wide smile, but with a rounded figure, though very much smaller than Mrs. Ames. And she was wearing a dress --which was something Karen had never seen except in pictures – with a full-length apron.

Karen did not know words for "spring dress of chiffon with pleated skirt detail," nor "embroidered roses," but she found the effect pleasing. Perhaps it was the smile.

"Hi, I'm Juanita Molinero. Hungry?"

Interesting smells, some of them new to Karen, filled the air. Karen shed her backpack and leaned it against the wall next to a table laden with creamery equipment. "Yes. I'm Karen."

"You are Karen!" Juanita laughed. "Is there any one who is on the Creek and who does not know you are Karen?"

"Is that th' eggs and broccoli?" asked Mrs. Ames, grinning.

"It is the eggs but the broccoli is all gone for this year, so it is the eggs and the kale, the onions, and some tomatoes. The frost was very light and so I think maybe it is a few weeks for the tomatoes yet."
"Here, Karen," directed Mrs. Ames. "You c'n wash up a bit 'n that bowl by th' sink, 'n if you'll set out plates, cups, and forks for – seven?" – Juanita nodded – "I'll go ring th' bell." She disappeared through the mudroom door.

"Bell?"

"It is a music for the hungry. It will bring my husband, my children, and Errol. The others are elsewhere. Tomma and Vernie, they make sure there is no one coming from up there." She nodded up-Creek, toward the foothills of the Cascades.

Where I came from. A patrol. Karen stepped across to shelves stacked with mismatched dishes
A clanging commenced. Mrs. Ames was beating a suspended length of iron pipe, which they had passed on the way in, with the poll of a hatchet.

In a few minutes there were seven washed faces, and seven washed pairs of hands, at the long table in the middle of the kitchen. Though it seemed to Karen hot with the fire still going, everyone else seemed comfortable enough, and the casserole passed from hand to hand, the bowl growing lighter as it stopped at each plate. To drink, there was water, flavored by being left in the sun with peppermint leaves in it. Animated talk seasoned the food.

Errol was introduced, but Karen could not form much of an impression of him. Sandy-haired and rangy, with even more freckles than herself, he was the farm's carpenter, and was working on the new cabin. Much of his work he did alone, whether in construction or woodcutting in summer, or in a skylit room in the barn in winter, creating wooden tools and handles and clogs; she gathered he did not regard it as loneliness but blissful solitude.

Karen was shocked at how old Juanita's children were. Two boys, they seemed almost teens and were already seasoned farm hands. Their father, Emilio Molinero, with a round cheerful face and a sparse beard, explained that he was in charge of finding enough fodder for the cattle and getting water to the pastures and to the cattle as well.

"We have really, here, two seasons, the rain, that is winter and spring, then the sun, which is summer and fall. So there have been many, many days of sun and the grass turns brown and the Creek runs low, and though there was irrigation equipment here when people arrived, there was no way to make pressure."

"Electricity." Karen had read about electricity, but she had yet to see its miraculous powers. 

"Exactly, what was in the wires we do not have.. But we have some smart people down the valley here, and they have turned old dead machines into new machines that use the winds, and so we get a little water. Also some we pipe down from a pool in the Creek that is higher up than here. With your permission I will show you."

After the meal, Karen helped Juanita with dishes while Mrs. Ames and Mr. Molinero conferred as to the afternoon's chores. The boys would spend the remainder of the day cutting comfrey for the cows and mucking out the barn; Juanita would prepare dinner and also she had bread rising in the oven ("flat barley cakes; there is not in them so much wheat as we could wish"). Mrs. Ames would visit the chickens and then rest, and she would milk the cows when the boys brought them to the barn.

"You take th' grand tour with Emilio, Karen, and if ya'll help Juanita when ya get back, that'd be dandy," said Mrs. Ames.

Karen walked with the cattleman to the gated pastures. As this was what she had been bidden to do by her friend Mrs. Ames, it must be ordinary and appropriate, and she would endeavor to regard it so. She also felt naked without her backpack, with its bow and her few arrows, but understood this was a different kind of life – something like, perhaps, what her father had known, before the Undoing. If it was unsafe here, no one seemed to think so – though she remembered that Tomma and Vernie were out there in the woods to the East, listening and watching – for what?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

4

Tom Chaney, an elder of Starvation Creek, had not much liked the name his family had given him, back before the Undoing. Other children had taunted him, saying it was the name of a cowardly killer in a new movie by the Coen brothers. But he reckoned that, in a way, the name had done him good.

He'd worked to remake the name's meaning, by seeking out ways to make himself known both for courage and for giving, not taking away, life. Seeking credentials for a medical education, he'd become an Army medic. His timing was poor, for it led him to take part in a war of which he did not approve, patching the bodies of younger men, and women, some of whom had crossed the Rio Grande to carry out a policy of interdiction by incursion; the others, if they were conscious, spoke Spanish.

The battles had not been battles so much as killing fields – the last gratuitous demonstrations of the United States' industrial wizardry. Dish-equipped Strykers had flooded Tijuana with amped-up microwaves as robotic snipercopters droned overhead.

Chaney's job was triage, determining who was too damaged to save and whom to send north on mercy flights. He had become aware that, though he tagged friend and foe alike, those who hauled away the gurneys sneered when they were given Mexicans.

Where were they taking them? He suddenly wondered. Tom never got a chance to find out. His field hospital's position had suddenly been taken under sustained small arms fire, well behind the lines in El Paso, and things had gotten complex. Somehow or other he'd been handed a Bronze Star, just in time for such medals to begin losing their meaning, even to those who might want one.

He hadn't kept the Bronze Star. But he remembered the childish quest that had led him into that disaster. Perhaps he had at least cleared his name.

Though he'd never had time to qualify as more than a Certified Nurse Practitioner, he was now, by default, the doctor of Starvation Creek. Also counselor, dentist and veterinarian. Some one hundred and eighty children, women, men, and a thousand or more animals, among them cattle, horses, sheep, chickens, and one creek full of migratory fish relied on him for, if not direct care, cheap advice and a kind word. It kept him in eggs.

At his age, eggs were a comfort. Bent, white-haired, and craggy, with the aches and pains of advanced age, he was all of fifty. He hadn't met many other fifty-year olds lately.

Speak of the devil! One of those other ancients was walking into the farmhouse-cum-clinic even as Tom thought this.

"Hello, Tom."

"Carey." Carey Murchison, another Elder, held responsibilities relating to the defense of Starvation Creek. He'd be here on business.

Murchison, completely bald, craggier than Chaney and wider of body than most nowadays, had been a Marine sergeant and served two tours in Kazakhstan. Having been exposed to considerable quantities of "depleted" uranium and clouds of dust bearing isotopes, he was also in the early stages of bone cancer, and it would be fatal – information yet known only to the two of them. Tom sometimes did not agree with the old warrior's views but he admired him, and they maintained a wary but genuine friendship. The Creekers, as they called themselves, designated him Captain Murchison. He had scowled the first few times he'd heard it, but the "rank" stuck.

They stood by the large window – made from an old sliding glass door – in the wall between the infirmary and a small room that contained two beds, a table and a couple of dining room chairs. In one of the beds lay a sleeping woman, not yet twenty by her looks. In the chair sat Mrs. Ames, reading a tattered Louis L'Amour novel.

"Still in quarantine?"

"Yes, all routine. I think it was mostly hypothermia, hunger and thirst, though she also had quite a few parasites. Much of her diet appears to have been small game – eaten raw. Mrs. Ames is her volunteer, and they get along well. Our tests, such as we've been able to do, indicate she's not a danger. If anything, we shouldn't breathe on her; she's been that isolated. Well isolated; no cleft palate, no other deformations, no pox marks. They should be able to leave quarantine soon."

Murchison's head tilted back slightly, and the corners of his mouth held a hint of frown. "As in she doesn't have smallpox, tuberculosis, bubonic or pneumonic plague, or anthrax, or measles, or polio. Danger comes in other forms, Doctor."

"I understand you. It's what anyone has to consider. But I remind you, "he smiled, "that it has been your policy to recruit from among strangers, and it is why we have enough labor here to carry out your schemes."

"True. And we've been damned lucky. It's rough out there." The old Marine moved to the table. "I've been Downstream, so I'm just catching up here. May I look through these items?" He awaited, and received, an affirmative reply.

The question was not entirely perfunctory. It was courtesy to ask; Karen's possessions were her own, in the eyes of all the community. They were in the doctor's hands only because there had been the precautions of cleanliness – along with need-to-know.

The first thing that came to Captain Murchison's hand was one of the arrows.

"Carbon Express dual fixed blade broadhead. Look at the fletching."

"Kept clean. I'm told for two years."

"In the field, no less. This thing is thirty years old if it's a day, and it would have cost a fortune then." He laid it down and took up another. "Now, this is just a common field point, much cheaper manufacture, might have come with the bow." He nodded toward the corner where the unstrung bow, an inexpensive light green fiberglass model, stood. "Eclectic. Assembled during or after the Undoing?"

"She says her father, a Mr. Rutledge, equipped her, as opportunity brought things to his hand, starting a decade ago."

"Nice work. I wish he'd come with her."

"He's almost certainly no longer living."

Captain Murchison's glance in reply carried meaning for them both. Rutledge, assuming her story were true, had had a relatively merciful and quick ending. Murchison's impending doom seemed cruel by comparison. Such, they both thought to themselves, is life.

He picked up a small roll of duct tape. "Repair kit and medical kit."

"Yes."

The Captain swept his hand to indicate the entire table's contents. "All the way across the Cascades, alone. On peaches in syrup, Spaghetti-O's, Alpo, trout, ground squirrels, berries and bugs, I'm told. Then holds off our scouts in a driving rain for three days running, wearing nothing but these – " he indicated a tiny, neatly folded pile of clean laundry – "a trash-bag poncho, and a square of Mylar. Could any of us do it?"

"No. We farmers may be getting soft, do you think?" Tom laughed.

"And then there's this." The old sergeant of Marines picked up the pocket holster and slipped out the strikingly small semi-automatic pistol that lay within. He pressed the magazine release button, glanced at the empty magazine, racked the slide, and looked into the empty chamber. He held up the pistol beneath the skylight for a better look.

"'Kel-Tec CNC Inc P3AT Cal .380 Auto Cocoa FL Made in USA,'" he read aloud. "This weapon has been fired and cleaned. Who unloaded it?"

"Tomma."

"And these were in it?" Seven rounds lay in a small dish on the table. "Carries with one in the chamber."

"Mm-hmm."

"Damn." Murchison held up one to the light. "Hornadys. Apparently the primers are still good." He aimed the tiny pistol toward the wall, away from Tom. "These nasty little things are bare bones, no sights to speak of, no safety. Very high recoil, hard to practice with. Yet I have a feeling she knows it the way she knows her bow. How come nobody got hurt up there?" He gestured toward Starvation Ridge, which filled the south window.

"The kids say she never showed it. Kept to her bow. They stayed well away and under cover, talked to her, but she couldn't be persuaded to come down. The rain and exposure was what wore her out, along with simple starvation."

"On Starvation Ridge, no less." Murchison almost smiled. "Seriously, though – disciplined. But nobody can fight Momma Nature forever. And this must be her reserve ammunition." Murchison picked up a translucent polyethylene thirty-five millimeter film can that showed a hint of metal within. He popped off the cap, and found cotton wadding stuffed inside, apparently to keep the cartridges from rattling. He shook out the four remaining rounds and found a small packet of silica gel.

He whistled. Then laughed. "Got us Creekers beat for ideas, and, you know, I thought we were pretty good." Then, lowering his voice, "So, you think she's told her whole story? And all on the level?"

"Well, no, not the whole story. There's a deep reserve, a lot of emotional blockage, wariness. She's very reticent, even with Mrs. Ames. But she seems truthful in what she chooses to tell. If she has fired in anger, it would seem to have occurred at one of her winter holdouts or on the Eastside. Apparently it's as bad over there as it is Downstream." Tom trudged over to the window and looked at the sleeping girl, then turned back. "I don't think she's paramilitary or a bandit. I can tell you Karen's been shot twice herself and knifed once. And yet she has no STDs and has never been pregnant.”

Captain Murchison might, at this point, have said something incredulous, but as he looked at Tom, he saw that the thin, dark-eyed, freckle-faced girl, in a "hospital gown" sewn from an old sheet, was standing at the window, right behind the doctor, looking intently into Murchison's face, then at the little pistol still in his hand, then into his face again.

Carey knew that every moment mattered in reaching out to such a creature. Mistakes could be costly to all concerned.

He pointed to the pistol and smiled, picked up the magazine and inserted it gently, not with a palm-smack that might shear off its thin plastic magazine catch. He racked it once to show her there was nothing in the chamber, then pointed to the ammunition and restored the pistol to its holster. Then he pointed to her and again to her possessions and gave her a thumbs-up salute. She did not smile, but she understood the pantomime. He respected her gear, therefore he respected her. He felt quite sure that if he had failed to communicate this successfully, she might have calmly gone for one of the chairs and put it through the window. He would not venture to predict what would have happened next.

Mrs. Ames had put down her book. and was watching. Karen spoke to her without turning from the window, and she replied. After a few more words with Dr. Tom, Carey Murchison waved to her and walked casually to the house's front door.

Karen's eyes did not leave his broad back until he had left the infirmary.

"Who is that man?" Karen asked Mrs. Ames.

"He's the Captain, dear; keeps some of th' young people busy with making sure trouble don't come up here from th' Valley." Be candid, the doctor had instructed her. But stay away from details, especially about Carey's kind of stuff, for now.

"What's 'the Valley?' The Willamette?" Karen watched him out the door, then relaxed her body and returned to sit on her bed, facing the gray-haired, round-shouldered Mrs. Ames, who had set aside her book and now picked up her knitting.

Needles, aluminum with remnants of purple paint, clicked. A woolen child-sized sweater, in two shades of yarn in a cable pattern, was in progress, something new to Karen, who knew toddlers only from pictures.

"Yes, there were cities down there – like yours." Neither spoke of it, but the unbidden image rose, in both their minds, of the thousands upon thousands of flat-tired cars and trucks, some burned, others merely broken, on the brushy and tree-choked Interstate.

"So ... trouble?"

"Mmh." Clickety-click. "Well, we're farmers here. We're doin' pasture, oats, wheat – so we're kind of – tempting, y'might say."

"I haven't seen a lot of farming. Or maybe, any farming."

"No, I should think you wouldn't've. With nothin' goin' anywhere, them as had both seed and sense 'ud be far between, hm?"

Karen thought of the riders – the hunters of people she'd encountered. In the absence of refrigeration, trade and transportation, Father had said, once all the canned goods and game in an area were depleted, there could be cannibalism, slavery, or both. "You're ... " she searched for her father's terms. "You're a protected high-density resource."

"See, there you go. Sound like y'went t' college but y'use it to talk street smart."

Karen did not know what to say to that. Streets had seemed to her to be something "smart" to stay out of. She drew up her feet from the floor onto the bed, and rested her chin on her knees.
"So, tell me about farming."

"Well – I'll tell you about me." She smiled broadly. "That's my best subject."

Karen made no comment, waited. 

Such a somber young woman. "I'm th' old cowgirl," Mrs. Ames went on, needles clacking. "Dexters and Devons, or like 'em, all we could find. We're breedin' for milk, meat and labor, and as much as possible on pasture and hay." She let go the knitting needle with her right hand and pointed to the wall, east. "The cows have about one hundred twenty acres, fenced and cross fenced ...umm, like this –" making a circle divided into four sections in the air with her finger "– and gates. So, in a year, they go from one to th' next, to fresh, clean grass, and th' chickens take over th' one they've just left and clean up after th' cows. Then th' young folks make hay on th' third one, and th' fourth one 'rests.'"

Karen clearly could not visualize much of that, but she remained polite and focused, though Mrs. Ames could see she was peripherally aware of Dr. Tom, consulting with a patient, through the isolation window. I should just give up on this no-details thing. She's hungry to know, for herself. Anyone could tell you that. Pasture rotation, it's called. Doctor Tom read about it somewhere, so we're tryin' it. Doesn't require tractors or fertilizer, y'see."

"You get help with 'haying.' Is that about gathering grass for the cows to eat in winter?"

"Oh you're a good student!" Clackety-click. "That's exactly right; it has to dry so it won't mold or get hot in th' piles and burn. Th' grass them cows eat in winter, in th' rain, doesn't feed 'em much, so we give 'em th' summer grass off th' hayfield in winter. That's me all winter, forking hay out of th' barn loft down to th' ladies, 'n miking morning 'n night, 'n keepin' th' hens 'n gatherin' eggs."

Mrs. Ames sighed. "It's funny, ain't it? Back when, I had Charles 'n th' kids, an' I fed 'em and sent 'em off ev'ry day, 'n then went across town to Denny's and waitressed my butt off – I had my figure then, I was hot stuff. An' now I work harder than I did even then, and here I am round as a pumpkin."

Karen did not ask the whereabouts of "Charles 'n th' kids." "No, I think you look nice just the way you are."

"Thank you, honey. Well, nobody's – obese – any more, but I'm old; I'm all of forty-eight an' couldn't expect to be pretty forever." Unexpectedly, tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over. 

The knitting needles stopped clicking and trembled.