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, March 22, 2014

3

It took three days.

Fortunately the weather held. The moon was getting brighter each starry night, so she made long days of it, but these mountains, such a gentle, unimpeded climb on their east slope, were, on the west, steep, dark, gnarly with vegetation, and covered with loose scree that delighted in turning underfoot. It was slow and exhausting going.

With what few berries she'd found, and one small trout that she had spotted stranded in a tiny side pool of the riffles and eaten on the spot, Karen was feeling bone-tired and giddy when she struck a trail too regular to be a product of the skittery activities of deer. No longer able to watch with her customary care, she trudged along, as the stream at her right hand, which been rattling with rapids and rumbling over small waterfalls, quieted down and lilted over the roots of large mountain alders and towering cottonwoods.

This would be the valley. So nice of the people here to make a trail that she could travel without constantly stooping and climbing under and over the vegetation – oh!

How long have I been like this? Better pay attention!

She stopped; looked, listened, and "felt." She believed, after many otherwise inexplicable experiences, that her skin knew not only touch, but another sense akin to sight – one could almost "see" around the next bend; certainly one could tell if there were watchers. But on so little food, this sense became unreliable. She would just have to try harder.

There was a bit of watching up and to the left, among the Douglas firs there – but it was almost certainly deer, waiting for dusk to come out and feed. No use checking; she'd passed the point of no return for strength and patience to hunt, and they were on to her anyway. She scanned ahead.
Ah, there's the problem. Too much light there. A clearing.

And very likely artificial.

No help for it, then. Must go up to the ridge and reconnoiter.

Halfway to the place she'd chosen, Karen knew she was in trouble – not able, on the low-calorie regime of the last week, to climb with the loaded pack. She'd have to stash and retrieve. And in this tangle, it was possible to miss her way and lose everything.

Slipping off her pack, she dropped it amid a patch of dead bracken. Marking the spot and her route with bent twigs, and taking her bow, two broadheads, a half-empty water bottle and her monocular, she scrabbled and clawed to a rocky point near the Douglas firs. Yes, there were deer, two or three. They snorted at her impertinence and moved off along the saddle to the east. 

It would take more reserves of strength than Karen had to track them. She ignored them and eased up the back side of the point. The late afternoon sun slanted through a mackerel sky – rain soon? – throwing a long purple shadow behind her on lower ground as she squinted at the unaccustomed brightness, then studied the scene before her.

First use the naked eye, Father had taught her. It's wide angle. Notice any movement first, then notice points of interest. Use the monocular only when you feel you have to. It gives you tunnel vision – cuts off peripheral vision, and you need as much of that as you can keep.

Okay, it's a clearing. Two clearings. Some more cottonwoods, then the stream cuts around the foot of the ridge out of sight to the left –

Well! That's a sight.

Someone has been farming. And there are buildings.

And I smell smoke.

She'd have to make camp on the saddle, watch, and think. It would be a close thing. How was she going to get anything to eat? And how keep warm? Rain was coming; and after that, a full moon – which very likely would be the first frost moon.

Tomma James and Vernie Watkin walked into the milking house. Mrs. Ames looked up, smiling. She liked these boys. Tomma, summer-tanned, slim, lanky, blue-eyed, braided blond hair, cheery and bumptious. Vernie, stocky, quiet – reserved or bashful, she was never sure – much shorter, with brown, frizzled, closely cropped hair, brown eyes, brown skin the same summer and winter, serious. Not alike in any way, except, which was always important, that they were both willing workers, these two had been best friends since both were two years old. And that was – oh, my! Fifteen years ago.

Neither had married, though most did nowadays by the time they were thirteen. They were clearly "together." 

Starvation Creek's elders might not openly care for that; they put a premium on child-rearing just as they did on stock-rearing. But these two made a strong team and had opted for patrol work. They had earned the respect of a mostly conservative community.

"Somebody reach me a bucket." She chuckled. "I always seem like I sit down before I have it with me, and I'm not as spry as I used to be."

Vernie put the milk bucket beside her as she groped underneath Florence, a small, placid Devon cow. Mrs. Ames – she still liked to be called that, though she'd been long widowed – noticed that he wasn't smiling. Neither was Tomma.

"Something's up?" she asked. She pushed aside a strand of gray hair that had escaped the bun at the back of her head and looked at them expectantly.

Tomma made a long face. Whatever that meant, Vernie nodded his agreement. Mrs. Ames looked from one to the other. This was taking them longer than usual.

"There's somebody out there on the spur," Tomma suddenly blurted.

"On th' Ridge?" She dropped her hand; it struck the bucket, which skittered underneath Florence unheeded.

"We, uh, think it's a girl. And, umm ... " Tomma glanced at Vernie, who calmly gazed right back, leaving the ball with Tomma.

"Been there a coupla days. We think she might be by herself. And – that maybe she's come down the creek."

Mrs. Ames' eyebrows shot up. She rocked back on the milking stool with her hands on her knees. "From th' east?"