Abide the Fire
Every thing that may abide the fire, ye shall make to go through the fire, and it shall be clean. Num. 31:23
KAREN, SEATED to his right, looked Allyn over. His pale appearance, accentuated by his dark beard, filled her with concern. "Are you in good enough shape to be here? I ask," she added hastily, "because I'm pretty sure I'm not." She twisted her shoulder for emphasis, the pinned-up sleeve of her tunic serving as mute eloquence of her loss. "I'm still barely here – what's left of me."
"Oh, did I have the mulligugs?"
"If that means a long face, yes."
"Well, I suppose I should count my blessings. I have a few days' head start on you as to healing, plus I've still got part of each arm." Allyn waved his stumps in the air for emphasis. "Doc tells me these are going to be in good enough shape to fit up with praws soon."
"Pross ... pross ..."
"Uh huh, prosthetic claws. A pair of hooks on each one. Not like tongs, but better than nothing, I suppose." The false cheer dropped suddenly from his voice. "What I'll miss most, I think," he said quietly, "is grafting at least for the next while."
"But meanwhile you can teach that. I'm no good for archery or pitching hay now – but there are things I can teach, too. I think." She shrugged, but her voice had dropped as well. There was no pretending what had happened could be taken lightly. Each realized that others would likely see them as diminished.
"Here" was Mess Hall at near capacity. The winter solstice had come and gone, and a light dusting of snow covered the fir and cedar branches beyond the windows, which fogged over in the breath of so many. There had been no General Meeting since the New Moon War, three months ago; who'd had time to attend one? Everything had to be done at once, day after day.
The war had killed, at final count, thirty-six Creekers, many from wounds that could not be adequately treated. There would have been more losses to "sour meat" had it been summer. And then the "whooping cough"—or whatever it was – had made off with sixteen more people, most of them children. So the population was down to one hundred thirty. Also, a Mr. Angle had died under suspicious circumstances; so, one twenty-nine.
So far. There were two or three wounded who might be "irrecoverable." Two had head injuries severe enough that Dr. Chaney might be directed, by vote of the GM, to offer them "mercy."
There were not going to be enough people to run the farms, Mess Hall, Ridge, and the patrols all at once – as if two hundred had been enough. This had always been so: never enough people to raise the food: never enough food to feed the people.
Excepting Karen and the Perkins family, no one but armed bandits had entered into the valley in years; recruitment might be a thing of the past.
"Karen; Allyn." Tomma sat down beside Karen; Mrs. Ames eased herself into the chair next his. Tomma smiled. "You two are u-u-u-u-g-ly."
"Thanks, Tomma; keep that up and we'll put some poison oak in your cast." Allyn made "stuffing" gestures, waving his sleeves.
Tomma raised his good arm and his plastered arm in mock alarm. "'Oh, the horror. The horror!'"
Mrs. Ames leaned forward to catch their eye. "He means he's very glad y'all two are able to be here."
"Yes, I meant that; that's what I meant, yes," Tomma grinned.
"Clown." Karen goosed him. "We're glad you've got both hands; you can fetch wood for us."
This conversation was carried on against a stream of voices; almost a hundred people, including cooks and servers, were assembled, leaving skeleton crews at Ridge, Common Farm Number One, and Ball Butte, as well as seeing to the needs of stock at farms along the Road.
But sound diminished suddenly, as a stretcher was brought in and carried up onto the platform. A bar of wood had been fixed across the stage; the handles at one end of the stretcher were jammed against this and the other handles raised and propped against a frame so that Carey Murchison, practically a ghost of his former self, could face the Meeting. He offered a wan smile, which brought tears to many; he was now in the final stages of leukemia.
Seated in chairs on the platform, also facing the room, were Doc Chaney, Elsa Chaney, Mrs. Lazar, Maggie, and Savage Mary.
Ellen Murchison, whose hair had gone much grayer, got up from one of the front-and-center tables and made her way painfully and slowly to the platform as well, wearing a house robe and leaning heavily on a cane. She took the chair they'd placed for her by her husband's strange perch, and reached into the stretcher to pat his hand.
Tom Chaney waited till Ellen had settled herself. "Are we all here that can be here?"
"All but Wilson Wilson, who's been out to Eagle's Nest," offered Vernie, who had come in late and taken a seat between Mrs. Ames and Errol. "He should be here before the morning's over."
"Sounds good; shall we call it a quorum, then?" Tom looked over the room.
Heads nodded; no voice spoke in opposition.
"All right, then. Cal, will you record in writing?"
"I will," affirmed Mr. Perkins. He sat with Mrs. Perkins, who was fully recovered from her wounds, down front. Their children, veteran fighters now in their own right, sat proudly on either side of them.
"And Ro-eena, to call speakers in turn?"
"I am," she said. She rose and stood by the stage, turning so as to face both platform and room.
"All good," said Tom. "Cal, please note we are met in GM at Mess Hall, early Sunday morning, January 29, 2051. Do we have an agenda?"
Mary turned toward Tom. "Yes; and I believe Avery's passed on it as well."
"And we'll be on the phone to him from time to time for his votes, especially if there are any close ones. Okay, agenda, please."
Cal rose in place, faced the room, and read.
"One. Interim decisions by Committee up for GM review. Two, request from Bledsoes' to reopen inquiry into the death of Huskey, Bledsoe."
This gave rise to impatient gestures from several of the veterans. The Bledsoes, it was felt, should give it a rest.
"Three, health report, disposition of dead, irrecoverable cases report and request, and a request from Tom Chaney for apprentices, with a view to ... giving up his practice."
A murmur of mild shock ran round the room. This was not unexpected, but a community almost always looks more than half backward, and so bumps into its future.
"Four, Membership offer to Karen, Ames; Emilio, Ames, Sponsor."
Emilio, sitting with Juanita Molinero and their sons, smiled and nodded across to Karen.
"Five, reports from patrols. Six, State of the Farm reports, with stock, field, food, water and fuel inventories and a request for guidance on the disposition of Wilson Farm and Beeman Farm, and possibly others, due to war damage and depopulation. Seven, report from Ellen Murchison on defense and state of the armory. Eight, request from Carey Murchison to step down from Committee of Elders."
Heads nodded; no surprise there.
"Nine. Request from Committee of Elders for new members, and a change of conditions for membership in said Committee. Ten, transportation report and animal welfare. Eleven, construction and water transport report, with a request for undershot wheels for the Creek. Twelve, results of inquiry into the death of Wilbur Angle at Hiseys', with collation to the reports from patrols."
Uh-oh. Many heads turned, many eyes met. The rumor that Mr. Angle, the blind and demented former nuclear engineer, had died at the hands of the mysterious escapee named Wolf, appeared confirmed. What might be the ramifications?
"Thirteen, request from Avery Murchison and Mary Savage for reorganization to take advantage of notable developments at Ridge, especially in light of the results of the inquiry per item twelve."
This created a stir. Best for last, indeed. Or worst. Everyone at the Creek had known that change might come, but this sounded like major change. How many might have to give up their present homes and affiliations?
"Well. Thank you, Cal." Tom leaned back in his chair. "I think we can safely say this will be a three-day GM. Everybody's had breakfast?"
There was general assent, but already some began looking at their empty cups and bowls with regret.
"Kitchen is prepared to keep us topped up as needed; just get Guchi's attention over by the door there – right, Mr. Guchi? – something will come round. And for calls of nature, we have a five-holer here, so just come and go; or rather, go and go."
This weak gibe released a surprising amount of tension; when the laughs subsided, Tom went on.
"But do come back. These agenda items don't have to be taken in order as they were added, necessarily. Item Two, for example, can await the arrival of Wilson, Ridge. So, any additions to the agenda at this time? – noting that we can add items any time between now and wrap-up."
He waited a bit, then said over the sound of a few dishes and utensils in use, "Okay, shall we begin with Item One?"
Emilio raised his hand and pointed to Ro-eena. She pointed back at Emilio and called on him. Several other hands appeared as well, and she pointed to each of them in recognition, to be called on in turn; if their business was pertinent to the item in question, they might speak. If something prior to their turn made their contribution irrelevant, they might say, "pass," yielding to Ro-eena's next speaker. Karen was familiar with this process, which she'd heard had been concocted by Elsa and Ellen, at the Farm level. But this was her first GM; she'd be interested to see how it worked with over a hundred participants.
Emilio stood and gestured over to Karen. "Respectfully, Committee and Meeting. I move that we give first consideration to Item Four, as we have a non-voting attender who by rights should become a voting member. Karen Rutledge has been called Karen, Ames almost since day one, and as we all know has given much in peace and much, almost her all, in war."
Tom, both pleased and amused, spoke. "Motion on the floor to offer membership to Karen Rutledge. Discussion, keep it to the motion. May I say, Emilio, you've done most of your discussion already in the guise of so moving."
A number of people laughed good-naturedly. Emilio sat, mildly embarrassed. Ro-eena pointed to Maggie, a thin woman with a long nose, on the platform. She wore buckskin, with a shot pouch and powder horn on crossed leather belts.
"Oh," said Maggie. "I had something else. But I support the motion. Otherwise, pass."
Many hands were waving. Ro-eena looked as if she might pop a sweat keeping everyone straight in her head. She pointed to two more, who passed, then to Marcee.
Marcee, who had been eventually rescued from the Wilson outhouse by the young grenadiers, had been through a couple of months of nightmares and flashbacks, but had begun to pull herself together. She was now with child, a natural consequence of her ordeal, and the hormonal changes had settled her somewhat. Also, the fact that she was growing four new fingernails was lost on no one. Her opinions, as a veteran and incipient mother, had begun to carry weight. She rose, a bit slowly in her long, loose robe, to her feet. Her appearance in the Mess Hall was striking; she and Ro-eena were the only two redheads.
"Well, I wanted to speak about even bothering to do Item Two, as I'm a witness in the case. But what I have to say about that is pertinent to the motion."
Marcee turned to face Karen. "I could see through the cracks in the wall where they'd put me, when you and Huskey opened up on those bastards. I saw what happened, and I – I'm just grateful. I think I'm alive today because of what you did, and I think everyone here is alive today because of what you did. I'd give you my left arm if there was a way to do it. So, uh, Chair, I support the motion."
Marcee sat down suddenly, still looking over at Karen. Karen did not know how to receive or return so much emotion. She settled for offering Marcee a brief smile, then turned her attention to Ro-eena, who was both calling on another speaker, and gamely fielding many more speakers-in-waiting.
The young shepherd from Beemans' that Ellen remembered shooting at coyotes stood up in the back. There were so few left at Beemans' that he was probably the current senior resident.
"Uh, y'know, I, uh, argue in favor, so that makes three not countin' Mr. Emilio, an' I call th' question."
"All right," said Tom. "I'm not sure that's procedurally done, but – discussion against the motion?"
There was none.
Heads nodded. Ro-eena was relieved; she could let go the long list of names in her head, and begin anew with the next item.
"Cal, what's the motion as recorded?"
"That we offer citizenship – I mean, membership – to the young lady."
Tom winced. "Close enough. 'Young lady' is recorded as 'Karen Rutledge, guest, formerly of Davis, California'?"
A thundering "Aye" shook the room.
"Abstain." This was one of the Bledsoe crew. Some of his neighbors glared at him; he crossed his arms and ignored them.
Tom stood up. "Karen Rutledge, rise, please."
She did so, a bit awkwardly, as she was still finding her balance with her newly lopsided body.
"We haven't even managed to cover this with you properly; but there's not much to it. You'll have attended meetings of your host Farm, right?"
"And the outcomes of votes, after discussion, are binding on members of each farm. It's the same at Creek level. Basically a guest may attain privileges and attend Meetings but not vote; a member of the Creek may attain rights and the vote, but shares equally with all other members in responsibility for and to the Creek as to decisions made by the GM or interim decisions made by the Committee of Elders, subject to ratification by the GM."
He peered at her. "Did you get all that?"
"I think so, sir. 'As above, so below.'"
"An interesting construction. Yes, the short version of all that," grinned Tom, "is, you agree to abide by the outcomes of all votes in quorum. Our ass is your ass and vice versa."
"Tom!" Elsa remonstrated. Carey Murchison, who'd had nothing at all to say up till this point, snorted amiably.
"Well, I don't really know a better way to put it." Turning back to Karen, he put the question to her. "This offer as it now stands, if I'm reading Emilio right, is of both Creek and Ames membership, by the way. How say you?"
"I accept. Both. Thank you all." She sat down, her face for once reddening, and dropped her hand in her lap.
Mrs. Ames fairly leaped across Tomma to embrace her – carefully. The room erupted in cheers around them.
"Now, don't let's get too carried away, folks. Nice beginning to a long, long day." Tom turned to Cal. "Record as member of Creek and member of Ames, Karen, Ames." He sat down. "Speakers now keep to the ordering of the agenda, please. Ro-eena, next hand."
Many hands were already eagerly vying for her attention.