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, January 3, 2015

44

Mullins poked at the ringbolt with his index finger. "It's got a lot of shine to it – he must have found a way to wear through the last link with sheer friction. Three weeks' work."
       Lockerby stood up and looked across the back of the LAV toward the Eastsiders, who were holding some kind of meeting, holding the reins of their horses. "We're screwed, y'know that?"
       "Screwed every way I can think of, Lockie. Wolf is at large, and even if he didn't move all the goods, he'll have stashed something. The riders look like they're thinking of bolting, and we're not much good without 'em. The trucks are soured, and both the Cat and this too-valuable-for-its-own-good gun platform are gettin' a bit iffy themselves. There's maybe two shipments of stuff comin' up th' road before Magee notices there's no more runners comin', meanin' if we ever see another runner from him, be tellin' us to either commit hara-kiri or come home an' be shot."
       "Shot would be nice, compared to letting the Doctor have us." Lockerby looked at the sun. Its light was already angling down through the trees, which in this valley meant that they'd already wasted a good three hours of daylight. "What have we got in our favor?"
       "Well, if we cut ourselves loose – to which I see no alternative – we have here more than half the army Magee could raise against us, and three weeks' head start. Close to parity if we can keep the Eastsiders interested."
       "But the machines will run out of fuel by then."
       "Yeah, we could circle th' wagons and go on th' defensive, maybe at th' big river. But there wouldn't be enough food and ammunition to hold him off for long, even with this cannon here."
       "Here comes Lacey."
       The tall Tribal stopped about fifteen feet away. That's how it's going to be, thought Lockerby. Nobody will trust anybody now. Lockerby made a faint gesture, palm down, for the benefit of the Volunteers: "hold off." If anyone got overeager, Lockerby would have to kill him himself.
       Lacey looked them over, his hands on his hips. His men had fanned themselves out, with easy access to the weapons slung on their horses. "You have had a casualty."
       "We don't know that," said Mullins. "The prisoner's gone and his guard with him."
       "It is a casualty. We have found the body of your guard. He has been stripped of everything he had on him, and he is missing an arm."
       "Shit, Wolf's provisioning himself."
       "He is practical. A man caught up to him; my Bringer of Food, our best tracker. So we have our casualty as well, and we are also missing a horse."
       "I'm sorry to hear that. We oughta leave off playing hide-and-seek with him, though. With any luck, he'll go after Magee and leave us to ourselves."
       "That may be so. Some of those here wish to return home. We have seen that the machines have liabilities, and that the expedition may be compromised."
       "What's your personal take on that?"
       The chieftain ticked off three fingers. "I can command only in battle; on the march; or my own kin. As we are encamped, if the Bends wish to go, they may go. I have advised otherwise. Yet there is sense in it. They are few enough that they may subsist on game and may see their homeland again."
       "You sound like you are thinkin' of stayin'. Yes?"
       "When there is no clear way, multiple strategies may lead to at least one acceptable outcome. We Prinevilles live closer to the invasion in the East. We have more at stake here. It may be we may still have the aid of the machines."
       "Magee's not likely to keep his end up now."
       "We understand that this is so. But perhaps you will."
       "I hear ya. And I'm glad of it. Tell ya what, I'll make it clear to my guys in the buildings not to whack your guys, and you ask your guys to back away from those bows a bit with those itchy fingers, and we'll chat some more. You're right; Magee's gonna come after us, and if we've got that power plant and the farmers' food, we have a chance of making something out of this mess."
       Lacey nodded. "Yes. Everything must be decided soon. There is little for our animals here, and morale will improve with a march." He walked away.
       Mullins turned to Lockerby. "Can you get to that Ay-kay?"
       "Yeah, it's in the turret."
       "Get in there an' put it just inside the rear doors, chambered and safety off. Unlatch both doors and we'll stay near 'em during this meetin'." Lockerby climbed onto the rear deck of the LAV. "All goes well, won't need it," added Mullins. "We gotta watch our guys as well as th' wild 'uns. Gonna make the speech of my life. I'm hopin' to start for that valley by mid-day."
       Lockerby climbed into the hatch, gingerly; the metal was already absorbing a lot of the sunshine.  He looked back. "Do we even know where to go without Wolf?"
       "Yeah, some. The Doctor is pretty good at map stuff, y'know. Move it; they're tying up their horses."

:::

By ox-cart, hauled by the last trained ox, Karen and Marcee made their way down into the scarred and stinking valley of Starvation Creek. As their excuse for the luxurious accommodation, they had volunteered to parcel out water bottles and soup, and Juanita and Guchi had taken them up on it gladly. As they rode along, making stops along the way, they surveyed, with increasing alarm, the destruction that had been visited upon their homeland.
       A change in the weather had slowed the rapacious flames at last, and a fire line thrown along Lazar's Creek had held. Lazar's, Reymer's, Ellins,' Beeman's, Holyrood's, Jones', Wilson's, and Ames' farms were, for the most part, no more. Houses, barns, fields, orchards, and many of the vital windmills had been swept away. The fire had leaped the north fire road and roared across the east end of Maggie's Hill in the general direction of Roundhouse.
      Farmers, trained by Selk in the brute-force mysteries of two-twenty-volt electricity, had salvaged every available form of irrigation equipment not destroyed in the Great Fire. Pipes and hoses radiated by valve and by tee from the five rebuilt pumps Selk had prepared. These, though their intake valves sometimes clogged with algae, sucked at the Creek with a persistent hum new to most Creekers' ears, bringing water to sparse and withered crops on the remaining farms.
       Other work parties, made up in large part of people from Roundhouse, were re-planting in burned-over ground from Lazar's eastward. It was very late in the season; but there was some hope of establishing fava beans, collards and kale before winter. Broad swaths of drought-hardened soil, with the ashes of burned oats and barley, had been twice gone over by Deerie. Jorj, the hero of the moment, had clattered everywhere with his wonderful machine in the last two weeks, pulling an antique single-moldboard plow, and then a combination disk and harrow. Old stocks of seed were committed to the dusty seedbeds, and water brought by hand where pipes could not be made to reach.
      Still others, newly designated as "smoke jumpers," tracked down blue wisps of acrid fumes at the roots of trees or beneath blackened logs, digging out coals and smothering them in dirt.
       Very few people were to be found at Ridge in daylight of late.
       The farming was more monocultural than the Creekers liked, with so much organic matter gone up in smoke. They worried about soil loss come winter rain, but there was nothing for it but to plow on the contour, east and west, and hope. Deerie had prepared almost a hundred acres when there had been an ominous bang beneath the tractor's engine cover and the celebrated machine had stopped in its tracks.
       Raoul Molinero, his close-cropped mustache now complemented by a shadow of beard, met Karen and Marcee on the Creek road at the edge of the burn. "'A sight for sore eyes'; we are all tired of chewing venison leathers and of course everyone is thirsty. The Creek is poisonous for the foreseeable future."
      Karen looked at the Creek, trickling between two scorched cottonwoods. Yes, that scum on the pools looked like blue-green algae. And very thick.
       "We're happy to be able to help," said Marcee. Standing up in the alarmingly tilted cart, she could see Deerie in the middle distance, with her engine cover raised. No smoke was coming from the woodburning cylinders on the platform at her back; Jorj and Deela could be seen laboring at something in the front, while Doctor Mary, with an umbrella fixed to her wheelchair for shade, kibitzed. "Do we know what happened to the poor Johnny-popper?"
       "I'm told there's a "mangled cylinder sleeve," whatever that is. It does sound serious. We are going to need your bullock, very likely, after we send you and Dr. Mary back in the cart."
       Karen, also standing, swept her eyes over the scene. "We could send him right back down, but he'll need some fodder, water and rest, after the climb. It could be dark by then; could he come down with your breakfast, and help out tomorrow?"
       "Anything will be help at this point. Some of us have been spading and hoeing. It's very slow."
       Karen, having turned sod by hand – it seemed so long ago – for an old woman in exchange for a winter's shelter, nodded. "Here's five gallons of soup – it's mostly sunchokes, reconstituted turnip greens and comfrey, with some fish stock – and clean water, fifteen gallons."
       "It will be welcome. We like anything at this point. And fish! Where did you get fish?"
       "We checked the pools over at Lawson's; a lot of them were trapped there by the drought. They're not very nice fish but we found them safe to eat ... we've boiled them in sacks until the bones were softened, then strained out the fins and gills and such. We're drying all the ones we didn't use."
       "Sounds great. No, really."
       A very tanned black-haired girl whom Karen and Marcee hadn't seen before walked up. Her hair hung down in amazingly long braids, double-wrapped in beaded leather thongs. Hair! One of the new people, none of whom had yet given in to the Creek's lice-avoidance protocol. Karen could see from the way she and Raoul smiled at each other that a Roundhouse/Creek romance was under way. She hoped something of the same sort might be happening for David, Raoul's twin.
       "This is Nine-ah," said Raoul as he gripped the handle of the soup bucket. "Everyone up-valley will come for their share here; want to sit in the shade a bit?"
       "Yes, please," said Marcee. Approaching full term, she was expecting her child some time in the next month; the sun was a discomfort to her even in her white robe and wide straw hat. Raoul and Nine-ah set the heavy pot on a stump and returned to offer the top-heavy women a hand down. Karen gave a long-handled ladle to Nine-ah. "There are some old plastic bowls and tumblers here; Marcee recommends everyone use those instead of just handing the ladle around."
       "Oh, germs. I've heard about those." Nine-ah laughed. A tinkling sound, though she certainly looked like she could take care of herself.
       As Marcee and then Karen made for the weak shade of a drought-blasted apple tree , a group of workers appeared from near the half-burned barn at Lazar's. As they neared, Karen could see Wilson Wilson among them, and with him came Billee. At Billee's side loped Krall.
       "Ah, that's where Bee got away to," observed Marcee.
       "But undoubtedly with authorization," smiled Karen. "She has a way of getting herself posted where she wants to be."
       A large black insect approached the black stump on which the bucket had been set down. Karen had never seen one like it. The creature, in shape like a heavy-set wasp, seemed to stab at the stump furiously with its abdomen, then, as if disappointed, flew hopefully toward Nine-ah.
       "Hey! No way!" She swatted at it vigorously with the ladle, hopping in a circle. "Git!" she shouted. The insect almost seemed to shrug, then lazed away toward a still-smoking tree in the direction of the approaching crew.
       "What was that?" asked Karen.
       "A stump fucker. They hurt like the dickens!" replied the Roundhouser.
       "A what?"
       "It's a horntail," offered Marcee. "They come out after a fire and lay eggs in burnt wood; Mr. Bolo told me about them. They don't have a stinger; it was trying to lay an egg in Nine-ah. They've been a trouble to the firefighters."
      "I can imagine."
       "And I'm not planning to be a mommy for any bug," said Nine-ah, still waving the ladle.
       This, delivered in the girl's high-pitched voice, somehow struck both of the mothers-to-be as hilarious. Nine-ah and Raoul joined in. Karen was pleased to see that Raoul had mellowed under Nine-ah's influence. She had always found him, along with his twin, a bit forbidding. She sat down heavily next to Marcee.
       Raoul, still laughing, walked to the cart and lifted out an armful of bowls. With his free hand he waved to Wilson's group and pointed to the pot. Nine-ah took a bowl from the stack, lifted off the pot lid and began ladling.
       Billee ran ahead, with Krall loping along beside her, and took the bowl.
       "Bee, aren't you a little fast?" asked Nine-ah.
       "It's not for me, silly." She sniffed at the soup. "Oh, yay, you used the fish we got ya!"
       "Mm-hm," said Karen.
       "And there's ... comfrey?"
       "We've run out of much else; Juanita says the poison's overrated anyway."
       Billee turned toward Wilson as he came up to them.
       "Oh, no you don't," smiled Wilson. "Newcomers first, in honor of Deerie's magnificent efforts." He waved Billee toward Bolo, who arrived next.
       As the crew milled around the soup pot and the water buckets, laughing and talking, another group came into view, walking up the road from the direction the cart had come. These were farmers who had missed the cart's deliveries along the unburnt fields, led by Emilio. With him, among others, were Tomma, Josep, and Marleena. Marleena's hair, Karen noted, was long and dark, and braided like Nine-ah's.
       Karen caught Marcee's eye. "How long is all this hair going to last?"
       "Until they all start itching, I'd guess. We never have gotten rid of the things. seems to me they mainly hit us when we all bunched up at Ridge." Marcee's baby kicked, and she placed her hands over her tummy. For a long moment she seemed to be looking inward. 
    Karen knew the look. A "Braxton-Hicks" contraction was in progress, according a book in Dr. Chaney's possession, from which he had been teaching them both.
      "That one looks serious."
       "Nahh." Marcee's body relaxed. "I wish we'd had a chance to do quarantine when everyone came over the hill. They've saved us, but they could yet make us sick."
       "Or vice versa."
       "Well, anyway, they didn't bring the lice. Or the rats. I don't think Ridge ever had a rat problem before."
       "You and Avery have been really frantic about that."
       "Well, he's been all about the damage they're doing to what's left of the stored food. I'm thinking more about plague. We don't really have any defenses against that."
       "You keep us busy hunting them down. That's good practice, actually; I've been using the rat hunts to train on tactics." Karen could see a mild state of alarm spread over Marcee's face. "Don't worry; we handle them with sticks."
       "I didn't believe it when I first heard about that, but I'm beginning to see how that works. And it helps! Especially in the absence of cats."
         "I've wanted to ask about that..." Karen did not complete her question. The mood in the air had changed. A bald young woman whom Karen didn't recognize was speaking in a low voice, her words directed at Wilson. Karen looked at Krall. The dog, who had hopped toward Josep to greet him, was pointed directly at the speaker, with her shaggy mane bristling. 
    And Krall's tail was still.
      Wilson put his hands on his hips. "I really don't think so," he was saying.
       Karen scrabbled at the tree trunk with her hand. "Marcee, help me stand up," she whispered.
       Marcee reached for Karen's back as she tried, belly and all, to lean forward. As Karen came to her feet, she could see, in the sharp, staccato slow-motion with which she saw at such times, that the stranger's right hand had reached beneath her tunic. Self-preservation had kicked in for most of those standing around Wilson; already they streamed away from him to left and right. Wilson, who seemed


 paralyzed, was clearly not reaching for the Ruger Army revolver, holstered at his waist. Billee, still holding the bowl, which was slopping soup, was stepping across to get in front of him.
       Karen focused on the woman, clearly a Creeker like herself though unknown to her. The hand had withdrawn from the tunic and was already extending a silvery object toward Wilson. The dog was leaping toward the hand, but would not get there in time.
       There were two almost simultaneous pops, neither very loud.
       Billee, who had lurched across in front of Wilson, had not had time even to shout a warning. But now, she grunted, and fell past him at Karen's feet.
       The woman with the silvery object stepped backward, her right eye blooming red, and fell to the ground as well. Two surprisingly large clouds of dirty gray smoke formed, and hung in the air. Karen lowered the old High Standard revolver, following the stranger with it as she fell.
       But there was no need for a second shot.
       In times gone by, perhaps the scattering crowd would have given itself over to shouts and screams at this point. But Creekers and Roundhousers had seen much of this kind of thing over time, albeit seldom among themselves. Though the shock was great, everyone immediately sought to be useful.
       "Marcee! Quick!" shouted Emilio, gesturing toward Billee. Karen holstered the revolver and turned, extending her hand toward Marcee, who grabbed hold with both of hers and heaved herself up.
       Emilio himself knelt by the other woman, but, as Karen could have told him, she was beyond help.
       Billee had got herself up on her hands and knees and reached for the inverted bowl, turning it upright with a shaking hand before collapsing again. Wilson knelt and turned her over, producing a knife with which he cut away at the fabric over her collarbone. A purple bruise – no, puncture – came to light, from which dark blood welled up slowly, like pus from a boil.
       Marcee, supported by Karen, sagged to her knees beside Billee's head. "Breathe slowly, honey."
       "Yes'm." Billee bit her lip.
       "It's okay to cry, just breathe as good as you can."
       "Nhn-nh." Billee bit down harder. Her eyes rolled toward Wilson. She began shivering.
       "Can we get underneath here and see if there's an exit wound?" asked Marcie.
       "There is," said Wilson. Dropping his gun belt, he lifted his own tunic. A red blotch, blackish in its center like Billee's, graced the place where his ribs came together.
       "Oh, Jeeah."
       "S'okay. Bee slowed it up. It's stopped in the bone."
       Marcee looked over toward Emilio. "And how's your patient?" she asked grimly.
       "Gone, doctor."
       "Right. Well, we need some arnica salve, some soldier weed, and some vodka." She looked over at Wilson. "and a good pair of needle nose pliers. Can we get all that from Peacher's? Or Maggie's?"
       "I'll go to Maggie's," said a voice in the back.
       "Please do. Don't want to wait to get them to Chaney's."
       Jorj, who had just arrived, pushed through. "Here ya go." He extended both hands to Marcee. In one hand he held an old-time multitool, unfolded and ready to use as a pliers; in the other, a brown stoppered glass bottle. Marcee nodded and reached for them.
      Karen stepped forward. She stooped and picked up the silvery thing, which she had seen before only in one of her father's magazines. It was heavy for its size; a tiny white-handled pistol with two barrels and no trigger guard, in nickel, covered with engravings. Twenty-two, from the bore size. The stolen round, no doubt. Damn. "Who is this?"
       Emilio looked up, surprised. "You have not met with her in all this time?"
       "No, I really don't think so."
       "Then she must have somehow avoided you on purpose. She is Mr. Armon's sister, Arda."
       Of course, Huskey's widow. Karen could now vaguely remember having been warned against this person – by whom? And she had tried to recall the conversation at the time of the aborted festival. Now she regretted not having managed to follow up.
       Before either of them could say anything else, Marcee yelped. Everyone turned to her. She was squatting in front of the still kneeling Wilson, with a tiny bullet in the grip of the multitool in her hand, looking down at the ground. Fluid, like water but more viscous, was draining away from her shoes across the impermeable surface of the wagon road. It ran underneath the shivering girl beside her.
       "I, uh ... Mr. Jorj, could you give Billee's shoulder a shot of this?" She handed him back the bottle. "And then ... I've changed my mind; let's get all three of us onto the cart and back to Ridge. Or, no, Chaney's will do. And could someone see if Dr. Chaney could come see to us? And Elsa? ... And maybe Juanita, and you, Karen? Somebody help me up."
      Many willing hands reached forward. Wilson stood up on his own. He looked at Marcee, and she seemed to understand him immediately. "Yeah, Arda too, poor thing. We'll drop her off at Hall."
       "Will there not be an 'inquiry'?" asked Josep. He looked uphill toward the dead tractor. Dr. Mary sat disconsolately in her chair by the upraised engine hood. She would have to wait her turn for transportation.
       "Of a certainty," said Emilio, standing up. "But babies first."


:::


Elsa Chaney felt the weight of all her years. She reached the cloth into the bowl, wrung it out, folded it, and placed it on Marcee's forehead.
       Karen appeared in the doorway in a long white shift, with a hazel staff in her hand. She glanced, with a wry expression, at the long-unused isolation room with its huge glass window. "May I come in?"
       "Of course. Pull up a chair."
       Karen leaned her staff against the wall, and hung her coolie hat on a convenient peg. She eased herself into the spare straight-backed chair.
       "So is it over? You're not a prisoner or anything?" asked Elsa.
       "Yes. No. There were many witnesses, and their testimonies largely agreed, so the ad-hoc council did not have to deliberate long. I'm cleared."
       "You seem not very happy about that."
       "There are so many ways all this should not have happened. I did not think clearly after the festival."
       "None of us did, and Arda was, we think, unwell. But it's not like you to dwell on might-have-beens."
       "This place has changed me, Mrs. Chaney. I think – there's an old expression in my readings which you may remember: 'bought into'."
       "I do remember that; it seems quaint, but it fits." She reached to the still woman in the bed and turned over the cool compress.
       "Yes, I've bought into the Creek's notions of what is civilized. And it has reduced my effectiveness."
       Elsa grimaced. "Excuse me, but you always struck me as a good match for us."
       "You say that with a hint of bitterness."
       "We're, we're barely civilized. Organized, maybe; but everyone goes armed all the time and trains all the time, whenever we're not planting or harvesting something. I always had a beef with perpetual war, I think. And that's what this is. Perpetual war."
       "Consider what the world went through. There was bound to be attrition once the spent fuel pools boiled over and the food distribution broke down. You saw it yourself; much more than those of us who came after."
       "I sometimes wish I'd died, too, so as not to've seen it all. But now there are so few of us, you'd think we'd leave one another in some peace."
       The baby woke up. Swaddled like a papoose, she could only crinkle up and cry, blinking up at the blank ceiling.
       Karen stood and strode over to the bassinet. She gripped the opposite rim and pulled it away from her to prop it against the wall, tipping the squalling bundle toward herself, then scooped the child up. She carried her awkwardly back to her seat, jostling the bundle into a better position on her hip. As she sat down, she began jiggling the baby, who quieted a bit and seemed to try to focus on her. There were still flecks – milia – on her tiny nose. As they locked eyes, Karen felt her own child shifting in the womb. She inched her hand around and offered her pinky finger to the child, who sucked at it instinctively, setting off an odd sensation in Karen's breasts. There was a particularly hard kick, which she'd learned to expect at emotional moments. "How's Marcee?"
       "Good," said Elsa. Something in her voice made Karen look up. Elsa shook her head silently and bit her lip; her eyes were wet. This had been said in case Marcee could hear. "Tell you what; Tom is resting; he's all wrung out. Bee and Wilson came back here briefly after the inquiry and have gone up to Ridge ahead of you. Juanita's here to spell me and is in the kitchen or out back. Why not look her up and she'll fill you in."
       Karen nodded, looked over at the bassinet, then looked down at the bundle tucked in her arm, and  got up, baby and all, to head for the hallway. When they emerged from the shadows, she found not Juanita but Marleena, peeling green skin from withered potatoes.
       "Hi," Karen said.
       "The Lord be with you," replied Marleena, cutting up one of the potatoes into a bowl. She looked up, and saw that Karen was looking at the peelings curiously. "The green bits are, you know, they have poisons in them."
       Karen nodded. "Solanine, it used to be called – it's, the potato's trying to be a leaf, that's the green. But it means there's solanine all through the spud."
       "I thought maybe it was like that, but there aren't any left that don't have the green, so ...." She reached for another potato and knocked off the long sprouts.
       "It doesn't hurt much to eat them, I think. Anything to stretch them out?"
       "For safety, or to cover the bitterness?"
       "Both, sure."
       "Yes, some barley cakes were left to go moldy for your Dr. Marcee and they gave her the moldy bits and I will crumble up what is left into this. There is some dried kale to go in, as well. And your Mr. Tomma brought us a ground squirrel, which I will use tonight. I have put its guts in a bag and we will cook them in this, to get a little extra something."
       "You know, that actually sounds – yummee."
       "'Yummee', is that a word?"
       "I think so. Listen, is there anything here for a newborn? I, I don't know much about them."
       "For little Arda, yes; I thought you would never ask." She picked up an ancient terrycloth dishcloth and dried her fingers. "In the springhouse is the last of the milk the poor girl expressed for her."
       "Well, she's asleep again, no rush." Karen started. "Arda?"
       "Yes, that is what she has named her." Marleena's expression softened. "I think I approve. It says something about you Creekers as a people, I think."
       "I understand you. All right, Arda it is."
       Arda opened her eyes. She took a last inquisitive pull at Karen's finger and let go. Squeezing her tiny eyes shut, she held her breath, reddening.
       "Explosion coming, I think," said Karen.
       "Right. Milk coming right up." Marleena ran out the back door.
       Arda howled, and Karen vainly jogged her up and down. What are we going to do with you when this milk is gone?
       Marleena came in, Juanita at her heels. They busied themselves at the sink, and Juanita turned to Karen with a large square plastic bottle. It had a long torpedo-shaped nipple affixed to it. "This was for calves and maybe bummer lambs," said Juanita, as she positioned the bottle for the baby, balancing it on Karen's shoulder. "It's all we've got."
       "I'm glad to see it, even so," said Karen, as Arda settled in for a long pull. "This is the last, though, isn't it? I'm guessing she's not ready for broth."
       "Her chances would be better with the milk, yes. I have some very ancient condensed milk hidden away at Ridge. I am hoping Ro-eena has reached there by now and will send us Mr. Guchi with the cans."
       Marleena stood apart, arms akimbo. It occurred to Karen that Marleena was not entirely comfortable with Juanita. Could this be that thing, of which she had long heard and read, but never yet seen – racism? Or it could be something personal? Whatever it was, Marleena seemed resigned to fitting in. That would have to do. So many things would have to do.
       Marleena's eyes met Karen's. "I – could I hold her? I lost mine, you know."
       Karen uncurled her arm a bit, then noticed her own envy as Marleena scooped up child with one hand, bottle with the other. She felt her face about to give her away, and turned to Juanita. "Elsa tells me you can tell me about Marcee?"
       "It is not good. Doctor Tom thinks sepsis."
       "Childbed fever."
       Juanita glanced at the Marleena and the child, now rocking in the kitchen corner. "As you know, breech presentation, a first child, and that long day of weak contractions. We're just not good for Caesarians any more. Too much pain, not enough opium. And then afterward ... peritonitis probably, said Dr. Tom. And the bread mold does not work on the bugs, the strep, as it once did."
       "I could see that Doctor Tom was thinking these things."
       "Yes. And it was so."
       "We're going to lose her."
       "Already she does not respond to us."
       Each became lost in her own thoughts. It occurred to Karen that at some point, someone would wonder aloud who would be the next apprentice doctor. And that someone else would point out the obvious. "Things have gotten beyond that point," someone would say. "Not enough people, too much work." Yes. We will all have to know a little bit about it. And we will let the rest go.
       The baby began to fuss again. Marleena addressed herself to Karen. "This nipple is too stiff. Is there nothing else?"
       "There are a few old latex gloves somewhere. Doctor Chaney wore a pair," Juanita replied. "We could cut a finger from one and puncture the tip."
       "I know where they are," offered Karen. She walked back down the hall toward the front rooms. Supplies, such as they were, would be on the right. She looked in on the left as she passed the infirmary. Elsa, looking even grayer and more frail than ever, sat by the bed with her face buried in her hands.

***

Ellen Murchison stood up, painfully. Her back was "killing" her, as the old expression went. In the cooling weather, the stone hut was beginning to sap the warmth from her bones. She should go down the mountain, as her son and her friends kept urging her; yet something held her here. If she could just keep watch a little longer – until the crops were established? – no, beets and collards did not need her to watch over them from here. Until the rains came and the Creek flowed from bank to bank again, instead of trickling from foul pool to stinking slough? No, nothing she could do with her binoculars to bring those teasing mare's tails on the horizon closer.
       Well, then?
       Time for another three-sixty. She swept the western horizon first, as always. Trees, trees – mostly leafless, too, though it was late summer. She could still see flashes of color from long-dead trucks and automobiles on what the young people had aptly named the Highway of Death. Pilgrims had kept open a trail along there, trudging mostly along the safety lane along the median, as the forest grew up around the vehicles. On the right flank of this vista stood the remains of the Eagles' Nest; the cell tower, with its truncated and blackened top, permanently marked the spot where Mo-reen had died at the beginning of that ugly little war. Not in vain – she'd provided the information she was there to provide. The Creek community had then pulled through by the skin of their teeth. That was why Ellen was here: anyone could watch for an approaching enemy, but only she could do it to honor her granddaughter.
       To the north, trees; many of them burned. The Great Fire had angled to the north and west, eventually burning itself out among the cottonwoods near the North-Running River. When the rains returned – as they must, she thought fiercely – perhaps all those lands would skim over in a thin swath of green. 
    That, she remembered from somewhere, is what life does. After a flood, a fire, a volcano.  The grass and the flowers pick up where they have left off. So far.
       To the east, devastation. Here the Great Fire had roared into the valley, essentially swatting aside the Creek's firefighters like flies. No, that was unfair. They had held at Lazar's Creek. She could see Maggie's and Delsman's, and there were people in a field, in a line, bending, working. And there was activity again around the broken little tractor as well. Beyond, the black fingers of perhaps a million trees pointed accusation at the unforgiving skies. Not everywhere – pockets of green remained, even in the upper Creek valley. But things would not be the same, not her lifetime certainly, nor that of the young farmers in that field. I must mention the increased danger from floods. Or maybe Mary would handle it. One can't do everything.
       She swept the glasses over Ridge. It, too, was blasted. The tall fir forest on the north slope, facing her, had torched off practically all at once, throwing up a cloud that, from here, had reminded her of pictures from the test at Bikini Atoll, back in the last century. Smoke, steam, cinders, whole branches torn from living trees, had been thrown into the upper air. At night it had looked like an old-time Fourth of July; perversely pretty. She had been amazed that none of it had come down on Ball Butte. At her feet, in the near distance, the firs and cedars had been tormented by their summer of great thirst. 
    But they had not burned.
       There was movement on the Ridge road. People, not just those farming, but the very old and very young, few as they now were,  trickled back down into the Valley. Living conditions inside the mountain had become – untidy. By Avery's account, everyone was beginning to look like a full-time brig rat. Past time to get them back out into the air! But many of the remaining houses were behind in maintenance and lacked fuel for the coming winter. 
    It would be touch and go.
       Nearer at hand, she could see activity at New Ames. Knurling the focus knob unconsciously, she made out a small group of figures – the slight man leading them appeared to be wearing glasses – that would be Selk – carrying something like a giant colander. Of course, an old satellite dish. They would be using it for their hobby up at Ridge. Nothing else seemed to be happening along the Road – no, there was a horse, with one of the dogs from Roundhouse. A young man with golden hair ... of course, Mr. Josep. He and Wilson and Karen were working together to re-arm and train the Creek – without interfering with the farming. Well, summer days were long, and young people's energy apparently boundless. Someone said Josep's wife had taken on poor Marcee's baby. Good people had simply walked into the life of the Creek, most of them without benefit of quarantine. No one, apart from Marcee, had been especially ill of late, and her death could not be attributed to the breath of the newbies.  Some things work out. Some don't.
           Around to the right from Hall, where nothing much appeared to be going on, Ellen completed her sweep by looking toward Bridge. There she caught sight of a group of people clustered around a large laden hand cart. That would be some of the Bledsoes. 
    A sad business, but the death of that poor madwoman, Armon's sister, seemed to be the last straw for the star-crossed family. They had elected, after the most recent Inquiry, to go Pilgrim. No one could sway them to stay. Ellen, among others, had argued they should be forced to stay. The risk to the Creek from having one of its crews out roaming around appalled her. But she had been overruled; the Chaneys in particular seemed inclined to accept the risk. Maggie and her crew had almost convinced themselves to join the exodus, but had relented at the last minute. 
       It was a near thing. Even with the Roundhousers moving in, two families' departure might spell doom for the Creek. Even one, she thought, wincing. Avery was more despondent than ever over his endless lists of lacks.
       It looked as though the Bledsoes were still deciding where to go. The tallest, which would be Armon, was gesturing toward the Highway; likely they would go north. That made sense.
    One more thing goes wrong around here, we'll be following them.
       A crunch of sand indicated someone was coming toward the post. Ellen lowered the glasses with one hand, patted the Navy revolver in its holster with the other, and turned. It was the young man from Joseph Farm that had made himself her aide-de-camp; she knew his characteristic step, but one must never make assumptions.
       He gave the two-fingered salute that had become common among the younger Creekers. "Ma'am, Hall's regards and the soup of the day." He unshipped a pack basket carefully from his left shoulder and stowed it by the doorway next to the wall. "Not hot, but there's some raccoon liver in it. Might have some staying power."
       "We're so eclectic these days. Thank you, Elberd. And what are those?"
     He unslung two small rifles from his right shoulder. "These are the latest thing from Mrs. Allyn and Mr. Deela at the Armory. 'Twenty-twos.' This one is an old 'bolt' thing, with a – 'four-ex'? – 'scope'?, for you, with their compliments, and this one is a tubular –'meg'? – 'semiotto?' – I'm not sure of the words they used, but I've had a little practice, anyway – and I'm good! The bullets don't always work, but they passed this one because the bolt does a pretty good job. Throws away the bad one and puts the next one in. If it sticks, they said dig it out with my knife – Oh! And they said you'd know best about the telescope one."
       "I see. Yes, I've been hearing the practice sessions. Did anything come with them? Ammunition, for example?"
       "I've got a greased-paper packet for each of us. Fifty in each one. They said these real long ones are for you, and the rest for me, and not to mix them up 'cuz they are two different kinds."
       "Mm-hmm, it says here 'twenty-two magnum.' I don't think I even knew she was working on those." Ellen picked up the rifle and read the inscription on its barrel. "Stevens. Never heard of them. Quite the antique." She opened the bolt, looked in the chamber, closed it, put the stock her shoulder and sighted, through the scope, on a tree on Maggie's Hill. Not much of a scope; might even have come from an old BB gun. Better than nothing. She would devote five rounds – that looked like all the diminutive magazine would carry – to sighting in, with an emphasis on downhill work. Much better than nothing! "Is there anything else?"
       Elberd grinned. "Karen thought you would ask. She says not to worry about practice, as they're remanufacturing some more of these for you and somebody else –should have them in a week – but that they are hard to clean up after. So here – " he reached into the back of his collar and unhooked from it a long, stiff wire – "is your 'cleaning rod' and I've brought an old cotton rag we can cut up for – for –"
       "Patches. Yes. And we can clean the bores with boiling water and then patch them out with a touch of bear grease. Very thoughtful." Ellen held up the wire "rod" and regarded it, amused. Mary had hoarded all sorts of metal products, and Deela must have known where to find this one. A steel "coat" hanger! Yes, it would do for cleaning. Just.
       She set the rifle against the wall. "All right, I'll stand down for lunch and you have a sweep with these." She handed him the binoculars and sat down on the end of her camp bed, next to the basket. Inside she found, wrapped for protection in a swath of sheepskin, a half-gallon Mason jar, with rusty cap and ring, full of brown liquid. Oh, well. In her long career in various "MarDets," hungry had made up for nice as a rule, and she was sure it would do so now.
       As she began untwisting the ring, Elberd, who had stepped, as post tradition required, to the west wall first, returned, wide-eyed. "Ma'am? Mrs. Murchison, ma'am?"
       "What is it, Mr. Elberd? You really look like you're going to swallow your tongue."
       "Could you, could you come have a look at something, please?"
       "Will do." She set down the jar and stepped with him to the opening, taking from him the binoculars as they went, and followed his pointing hand with the lenses.
       It took a moment for her eyes to cross enough to clear the view through the damaged prisms, but she could see immediately that there had been a change since her last sweep, only minutes ago.
       "Do you see it?" Elberd asked in a shaken whisper.
       "Indeed I do. Excellent work, young man. Ring up Ridge for me and hand me the phone."
       Elberd stepped to the table, hit the doorbell buzzer and reached the heavy handset across to her.
       Still watching through the glasses with one hand, Ellen put the earpiece to her ear with the other and pressed the call button with her middle finger. "Avery! Over." She released the button. Click.
       Click. "This is Minnie-Min, Ma'am. He's down in th' canteen. Get him? Uh, over!" Click.
       Click. "Yes, now, please. Hop! Over." Click.
       Long, precious, terrifying minutes, as it seemed to Ellen, slid by like the scum on the pools of Starvation Creek.
       Click. "Avery Murchison. Over." Click.
       Click. "Son, we have a full-blown emergency out beyond Bridge. Over." Click.
       Click. "Describe. Over." Click.
       Click. "We're seeing at about ... two-forty degrees, twenty-five klicks, activity, very large Cat clearing road. Out by the Highway. Over." Click.
       Click. "Copy, two-forty degrees, twenty-five klicks, Cat, copy. As in crawler tractor? Over." Click.
       Click. "Yes, dammit. Like a D-8 or D-9. Functioning. And it's a hell of a long ways off, I need my telescope back but it looks armored. Over." Click.
       Click. "Copy, armored, roger, telescope, I'll send you Minnie right now – Minnie? Good, hop. So, I'm looking at the sheets, this thing is already over the River? Over." Click.
       Click. "Affirmative, they look like they're aiming for the 228 bridge, Halsey, our direction. Over." Click.
       Click. "Query, send crew, intercept? Over." Click.
       Click. "Negative for now, there's more going on that we can't quite see yet, over." Click.
       Click. "What – " Click
    Click. "Avery! Clear the wire, please – truck – Oh, shit!" Click.
       Click. "Clarify, please? Over."
       Click. "Son, send a crew, but to reel in the Bledsoes, silent running, stat, they're about to run into trouble out there, 'K.? Over." Click.
       Click. "Copy, roger, don't know if they'll comply. What do you see? Over." Click.
       Click. "Avery, there's a six-by-six out there and it's towing armored. A LAV or an old Bradley or something. Chain gun in the turret, I'm sure of it. And there's more stuff in the trees. Over." Click.
       Click. "They're back, then."
       A long silence. Pick up your finger, kid.
       Click.
       Click. "Thank you. Yes, in spades. I think trucks and escorting infantry. Preliminary guess, fifty. And this could be an advance echelon. Will watch and report as we learn more. Over." Click.
       Click. "Copy; will send crew after Bledsoes, could get ugly. Will mobilize Creek. Wild-ass-guess on rate of travel of column? Over." Click.
       Click. "I'd say they'll be at Bridge within three days. If that gun is functional, you'll be within its range inside a week. Over." Click.
       Click. "Thank you, ma'am, Butte's done good. Anything else? Over." Click.
       Ellen took a deep breath. There were things her independent progeny did not care much to say or hear. But now would be a very good time to step over that line.
       Click. "When you mobe, send us a few good hands here too. I love you, son. Over and out." 

    Click.