Archive for April, 2017

“World’s End”

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Four: Beyond Reach


The following Friday:

As she had been doing frequently since Sunday, Moira was on the satellite phone talking, sometimes to Rudy and sometimes to others unknown, who offered updates and chilling fragments of news from afar, most of it as stomach-churning as the increasingly bitter weather and the smaller but more frequent earth tremors. They all agreed the situation was nowhere near over.

The worst scenario to contemplate was the growing conviction that the caldera, the giant magma uplift below Yellowstone, was likely getting ready to blow its top, an event that had happened more than once, but never within human experience. If that were to happen, the ash cloud would likely turn everything for a thousand miles south and east into an ash-covered desert. For all their fear about it, mentions were brief and soon passed over. It simply didn’t bear thinking about. If that were actually to happen as they feared, most of her partners in this venture would be dead. And the rest, including her, were likely to be, as she was, scrambling to save what was left of the habitable world. She had thought she was being relatively calm as she worked away through the warehouse cleanup, celebrating the things she had thought to stock up on and lamenting the things she hadn’t thought of. For instance, in terms of future defense, although there were four guns on the property, there was only one box of shells each for the pistols, a handful or two for the 12-gauge shotgun, and barely two boxes for the handiest, a .410 gauge varmint gun. That collection did not an armory make. And this morning, when she was walking through the garden area and found a withered luffa fruit with a full seed cavity hanging in a sheltered spot in the fence, she burst into tears. How in God’s name did one prepare for losing Everything.

She’d been telling herself it might not be so bad. Things could settle down and regain some semblance of order. And then last night she had a dream.

In the dream the Visitors Center was instead a large cavern of soft, chalky rock with hastily hollowed out rooms where things were stored haphazardly. Staff members were coming to her, complaining that their salary checks had not arrived. She tried to explain to them that the chaos as a result of the crisis would delay things, but she finally relented and said she would issue the checks herself. She went into an adjoining space where the computers were kept, but found the printers were glazed over with a chalky residue left by seeping water and were becoming part of the rock, and there was no paper on the rude shelf where supplies were kept. When she attempted to turn on a monitor, there was no power, and then the keyboard before her began to disintegrate as she touched it and she was left with only little eroding cubes that had been the keys.

When she awoke, short of breath and heart pounding, she called Rudy, but got one of his staff, who told her the D.C. offices were being shut down due to flooding that was backing up from the Chesapeake Bay into the Potomac. Large portions of the capital were under an evacuation order, including much of the downtown area of government offices. Rudy, he said, was up in one of the mountain strongholds that had been prepared for a possible nuclear attack, making space for equipment storage and organizing that end of the move. The young man, an attache´, was alone in his office, manning the phones, he told her, while dumping computer files into long-term storage. Everyone else was out in front of their building, filling sandbags and trying to hold the water back until all the files were copied and put somewhere safe. “Don’t worry,” he said in a tone that said his words were empty. “We’ll whip this.” She wished him the best and rang off before her voice betrayed her.

After a simple breakfast, she was still nowhere near able to form a plan for the day. Since bone weary was not the proper attitude for starting the day, it must be time for a break, she decided. Throwing on a barn coat, she headed out the north doors and across the parking lot toward the pine thicket. She stood awhile in the lee of the great signpost, soaking up the weak winter sun and inhaling the crisp fragrances of winter. Only a dusting of snow had fallen in the night and it was already somewhat bird-tracked. She threw down some crumbs from breakfast and laughed as the little snowbirds came right up to within touching distance in search of a morsel or two.

Then, looking further, she notice another little bird that remained still. It had apparently fallen from a branch and landed upright, but it was dead. It might have been literally scared to death. The realization struck her straight to the heart, and she gasped at the pain of it and fell to her knees. All in that moment, the truth came rushing in. No matter how secure she might be in this little hidden spot, she was surrounded by the likely deaths of thousands, with millions more facing the same fate all over the globe. In a vision that pictured the earth mother brushing parasites off her belly, she saw among them her family, friends and colleagues, and uncounted strangers she would never know. She mourned them all, crying openly, her sobs turning to keening, the sound one reserves only for the loss of loved ones.

Some time later, when she became cognizant of how stiff and cold she was becoming, she dipped her mittens in the snow and washed her face, stood upright, and headed back to the only home she still had.

She spent the balance of that day in a peculiar agitation, unable to work long at any single chore, not from lack of energy but from an odd inability to think more than one step ahead. After heating her coffee three times in the microwave without ever drinking any of it, she finally sat her self down on the daybed in her tiny apartment and decided to see if she could clear her thinking and calm her mind, her canine companion snuggled tight against her. Within minutes, she fell into a sound sleep and awoke two hours later, refreshed. She would have to work on being able to tell the difference between agitation and exhaustion, she decided. But she’d rather be talking to Rudy. A little after 10 p.m., he called. He sounded as exhausted as she had been, but she drew a laugh from him when she recounted the events of her dream.

“That’s nearly how it is,” he said. “My recurring dream is where I’m riding in an old 1960s-era city bus touring San Francisco. It’s all very beautiful, but when we get to the top, at Coit Tower, we go right through the parking lot, through the fence, and off the cliff.”

“That sounds pretty terrible,” she said.

“That’s not even the scary part,” he said with a wry chuckle. “We never reach the bottom. But I don’t wake up, I just keep falling and falling. And that, too, is pretty much how it is when I’m awake.”

“I get that. I know I’m nowhere near getting the worst of it.”

“Well, kiddo, that was the idea. You’re one of our success stories, so far.”

“Not all of the outposts are faring as well,” she asked.

“You could say that,” he said, and then hesitated.

“I did say that. So tell me.”

“Well, I’m sure our guy in Idaho has some complaints, if there’s anything left of him by now. And we haven’t heard a peep from anybody in California’s coastal range or southern Nevada. Of course, there have been some land movements out there, particularly along the southern end of the San Andreas fault. Satellite photos show the present north end of Baja’s Gulf of California as being just below San Diego. And San Francisco bay is larger by half. Not as much damage as I would have expected, actually. Of course, that may be part of that long slow fall in my dream. There is some steady subsidence in the basin that includes Los Angeles. But no huge tremors. So part of the infrastructure is holding, and people are starting to head out of areas like that in a more or less orderly fashion. Again, there’s not as much panic as I would have predicted. A little like Moses into the wilderness. But of course we haven’t told them everything we know.”

She shook her head. Part of her wanted more details, the rest had had enough. But he wasn’t through.

“The Russians sent up a rocket this morning to the space station. We offered to bring them all home, but all three elected to stay, even knowing this may be the last ship to go up. The Russians are seeing worse damage than we are, and we don’t have another landing pad that’s any more secure. So we shipped them all the food and supplies the rocket would hold. We had already transferred archival files of everything we could think of up to them. You’ve got codes and access links coming to you now, so you can call them for odd bits of info. They’ll be there as long as … well, as long as they last.”

Moira was silent for a while, trying not to betray another surge of sorrow and grief she felt for these brave men and women. Finally, Rudy added, “I know how you feel. But the truth is, we’re all in the same boat. They may be the farthest away, but right now they’re safer than we are. Listen, kid, I gotta go. There’s a bunch more info coming to you tonight on the secure channel. Get on there and get it downloaded. We don’t know how long these links will hold. Better to plan for the worst.”

“Expect the unexpected,” she said, smiling. “That’s become my motto. Thanks, amigo. Hope to hear from you again soon.”

“I’ll do my best. Hang tight.” The silence after he disconnected was deeper than any she’d felt so far.. Whatever happened, it was going to be a long, cold winter.

Meanwhile, given the pitfalls of dwelling on the future, staying in the present tense seemed a more useful if not more pleasant option. As she applied herself again to clearing the chaos in the warehouse, at times the work felt almost like a meditation. This box goes here, that one there, this barrel of axle grease to the toolroom, that pallet of baking soda to maintenance, and so on in a quiet, steady rhythm.

A different strategy was needed for the mystery packages, more of which were finding their way, piece by piece, onto the shelves in the conference room. Each contained a surprise, and not all were easily identifiable. A cataloging system and copious notes had to be created as she worked out what each item might be, and what it might be for.

The multiple thin tablets and their keyboards, most of them vacuum sealed, were easy. Less obvious, for instance, was the long, tubular package of fine metal screening that appeared to be associated with a box of tightly packaged chemicals and another of instruction manuals. By examining the supplies as a group, she soon deduced their function – it was an easily assembled apparatus for making paper from local natural sources of fiber. Another set of boxes contained sets of laboratory equipment for a wide variety of uses related to processing available materials into useable products that might no longer be available from the outside. God bless them profusely for those items alone – tools she’d never have thought of until it was too late. Those went straight to the labrynthian storage vaults.

Other parcels she opened just in time, as they contained more live samples of plants that either were not native to this part of the world – tiny saplings that would grow coffee, tea and a variety of citrus fruits – or plants that were difficult or impossible to propagate from seed. She doubted she would be able to keep the pair of cacao trees alive without severe pruning, for they would undoubtedly grow too tall for the greenhouse. But she thought the vanilla orchids might be happy in the warmest part of the warm room. Several other live specimens were medicinal in nature and might save lives if pharmaceuticals were no longer available. Most precious of these, she thought, were the delicate Asian sweet gums, the Chinese herbs, and the tiny seeds of opium poppies. They had delivered the nearest things to a living pharmacy as one could imagine.

These precious green gifts presented a challenge, though, for they filled the greenhouse past its normal capacity. Fear of more destructive tremors kept her from adding more shelves, so she was forced to transfer some of the plantings, particularly the tree saplings, into tubs that could be rolled on casters to the glassed-in, light-filled lobby of the Center. All would be safe so long as the generator under the mill dam held and kept the heat pumps running. If that went, life would be far less comfortable in a number of ways that didn’t bear thinking about. Best to focus on one potential calamity at a time, she thought. There were many other alternatives that might well end in unthinkable consequences.

As the days grew closer to when the passing “rogue planet” reached its nearest point to the earth, time seemed to slow until she could only work in small segments punctuated either by the ring of the satellite phone or a sudden shudder as another tremor struck. And she noted more than once that she had just stopped in the middle of a task to be silent and listen. The sense of impending doom became more and more overwhelming. And every day the news worsened.

An outpost in the southern Appalachians suddenly went silent, and then one in Nevada and another in the Dakotas. From the still active outposts in the California Sierras and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, she learned that sea levels, which had already reached epic heights from the continuing effects of climate change, were not the only danger to the coasts. Far worse had become the tidal changes caused by the warring effects of the earth’s own moon and the approaching massive space rock, which threw the normal rhythm of the tides into an unpredictable arrhythmia that was making any travel by sea treacherous and unwise. Out in the travel lanes were hundreds, perhaps thousands of freighters and tankers stranded because they could not safely approach the coasts. Coastal residents to the east had mostly been evacuated inland, while populations along the northern Pacific coast were being urged to head north toward Canada or east toward Colorado, but not, definitely not northeast. Public  media continued their assurances that the worst would soon be over. That was one of the possible outcomes, Rudy said. Most of the others were too horrific to consider, and hardly the kind of news to mention to an already terrified populace.

On the private satellite network they shared, more reporting stations continued to go silent, at first intermittently and then just gone. Rudy, speaking from his mountain stronghold in the Poconos, cautioned her with every call that it could be his last. And then one day it was, with less than six hours remaining before the dark planet was to reach its closest pass. She was sure of the time, because they were talking when the interruption occurred. He was delivering more bad news.

“We’re moving everyone we can out of the immediate area of the caldera and sending them north into Canada,” he said, referring again to the ominous signs that the lava dome under southeastern Wyoming might be awakening. “Yellowstone is closed and everyone evacuated, as are all the wilderness areas nearby. Canada is cooperating by expanding their border crossings at Vancouver, Glacier-Waterton and on east to the Badlands.

“It’s frustrating, because for all our efforts, there is still so damned little we can do. If we can get past the next 24 hours with little or no catastrophic events, I’ll be able to breathe again,” he said, with a laugh that had no mirth in it. “Hell, I might even be able to give up my antacids.” She was beginning to offer sympathies for his worries that far outreached hers, when he interrupted, his voice strained.

“Ah, shit. There it goes. I gotta go, kid. You be…” And he was gone. Just like that. And so was the network. A few electronic mutters, then nothing. She stood for a long moment, looking at the phone, stunned. She glanced up at the calendar. It was Dec. 21, just hours before the solstice.

All of a sudden, as though she’d received a strong elbow to the ribs, she began to move, first to the warehouse entrance, where she donned her stout farm coat and boots, and then out the door and down the hill at a run, her dog at her heels. How long would it take the effects of what had to be the worst – the disastrous explosion of the caldera – to reach this sheltered hollow? A few precious hours at most. The animals must have food and water available. The greenhouse and now the windows in the lobby must be reinforced. And she must get herself and her dog to the safest place she could find.

At the barn, she threw open all the stall doors, threw down whole bales of hay and filled all the containers she could find with water. She threw grain around wildly, hoping by doing so that no one would overeat but everyone could find something. She released the chickens and the pigs. And then she was heading back up the hill calling over her shoulder, “Good luck, everybody. I’ll see you when I can.”. As she ran, she began to hear an odd creaking and groaning in deep bass tones, and the ground began an eerie rhythmic shudder, as if it were crawling. She reached the top and threw herself in the warehouse door. She hadn’t imagined the crawling sensation. Everything that wasn’t firmly anchored was moving as if alive.

She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply until she caught her breath. No point in waiting for things to return to normal. Normal was gone, as was the world she knew. Time to prepare for the world to come. She turned toward the lobby’s tall windows and strode forward into her uncertain future, her dog beside her, a roll of duct tape in each hand.

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“World’s End”

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Three: It Begins

Daybreak on the Sunday following Thanksgiving:

Moira gasped, rising out of a dream in which someone was calling her name. In the dream, she had fallen out of the old rowboat in the pond below the mill and was trying to get hold of the boat and keep her head out of the water. But the wind kept whipping up waves that rocked her and the boat from side to side, faster and faster . . .

She snapped awake to the sound of glass shattering. Her first thought was a wind storm was underway and a limb had hit the greenhouse. But when she tried to get out of bed, something threw her back. And then did it again. My God, she thought as she came fully awake. It’s an earthquake. And a big one.

She grabbed at the bedside clock as it flew from its perch above her head and then had to dodge a rain of books as they tumbled from the same rack of shelves over the bed. She lurched forward again and landed on all fours by the bed, still cringing as objects fell around her. She yelped as she felt something warm crawling up beside her, then realized it was the dog, who was shaking almost as hard as the floor beneath her. She grabbed the dog and dropped beside it, huddling against the bed. Then all was silent. From somewhere she heard a whimper, which stopped as she realized it was issuing from her own throat. The floor gave another shudder and she braced herself. Then all was still again. She heard a low moan, not hers, and reached to embrace her new companion who was still trembling uncontrollably.

“Sshh, sshh, it’s OK, it’s OK,” she said, though they both recognized the lie. She held the dog until its trembling grew less. “It’s all right,” she said again, taking the dog’s face in her hands and looking her in the eyes. “I’m scared, too. But we’re in this together, OK?” She took a deep breath and felt the dog do the same.

She stood shakily and looked around at the chaos that was her apartment. She still clutched the clock. The time, 7:21 a.m. Sunday. First day of the week, but perhaps last day of the world, she thought. She judged the tremor had lasted less than a minute, although it had seemed longer. Her living space was transformed — dishes and groceries spewing out of cabinets, a desk lamp hanging by its cord, books and papers everywhere.

Walls and ceilings, however, had no cracks. This part of the structure at least was intact, which made her smile. She had once compared this hugely overbuilt headquarters to an elaborate bomb shelter. She was regretting her criticisms now.

The Center was a monolith of cast concrete and steel that had been built to survive anything. So said Joseph Beverly, the founding director who had preceded her in her job and who had written the specifications for construction of the massive facility early in his 21-year tenure. The specs had called for a welcome area, introductory exhibits for visitors, space for administration offices, and storage areas. But Uncle Joe had seen and seized an opportunity to make it vastly more than that. Her predecessor had been fiercely passionate about all things Ozarkian. But he was a biologist first, and his overriding passion had been for protection of the unique plant communities and seed varieties indigenous to the area, especially those that had made up the traditional food crops of the pioneers. His mission, according to the Park Service people who remembered him, had been to design and build a front door into the past, to add both nobility and authenticity to the living history museum. He had done that.

But while doing it, he had quietly and without apology built as well a botanical archival facility of the first order. Beneath the Center was a vast, insulated, climate-controlled chain of vaults intended to store heirloom seed samples and relevant paraphernalia, with a hothouse above for propagation and preservation of living specimens. He had overbuilt by a factor that approached logarithmic, reasoning that the way government contractors overspent on materials and labor, no one would notice. In fact, no one had until it was done.

Her vision of the museum’s mission and purpose had not always matched Uncle Joe’s, but at this moment Moira felt so grateful to him that she wanted to cry. He’d meant the building to withstand everything, and it was time for her to go out and see if it actually had.

Her hand flew to the wall to steady herself as the floor shuddered again, and she heard another tinkling sound as another pane of glass shattered. She exclaimed aloud again when she realized that the sound was coming from the greenhouse. She rummaged through the rubble, found a pair of sneakers, and pulled them on. Then she motioned the dog up onto the bed and told her to stay. Moira edged carefully to the interior door, which opened easily, ran down the hall to the greenhouse complex, and dashed across the entryway. Or tried to. A jumble of long-handled gardening tools left propped against the wall were now scattered across the floor and down into the stairwell. She stumbled her way across, cursing the mess. It could wait. Of greater concern were the priceless heirloom plants of all description living next door.

She tugged open the door to the cool room and found it far cooler than it should have been. A gust of bitter winter wind struck her full in the face and she cried aloud as she threw the light switch. One whole section of glass in the long vent windows had disintegrated into thousands of cubical shards and its remains were sagging out of its frame. Like icy gems, the fragments of safety glass glittered in the beds of wintering greens. Worse, the temperature had already dropped to at least twenty degrees below greenhouse normal and was still plummeting as the wind whistled through the broad opening. She surveyed the other sections installed in hinged frames so the greenhouse could be vented in warm weather. There were several ominous-looking cracks and one small section where the pane was missing altogether. A makeshift patch or two might hold for a little while, she thought, but more aftershocks would certainly loosen more panes. Fortunately not all of the panes were regular greenhouse glass. Most of those had been replaced last fall with durable polycarbonate panels. The awning windows had been left as they were, since the safety glass had already survived several hailstorms. No one had given a thought to earthquakes.

All the plastic panels were still intact. And fortunately, she had more. It would take no time at all to retrieve some new sections, cut a patch for the heat-leaking hole and then reinforce the remaining glazed areas with more. Even more fortunate, the work could be done from inside the greenhouse, where she was less likely to freeze her rapidly chilling behind. She turned on her heel, leapt over the obstacles, and jogged back in the direction she had come.

The Poly was in the warehouse, and she’d seen a can of putty in the toolroom. The closest path was through the public area, but entering it, she shuddered. None of the glass-fronted oak cases had actually fallen, although one pair was leaning drunkenly against the north wall. Dislodged ceiling tiles littered the floor like giant snowflakes. Scattered among them were books, stuffed toys and bits of broken pottery from the gift shop. Lots to be done here, but first there was a larger disaster to avert.

She picked her way through the area and attempted to shove the warehouse door aside. She met immediate resistance when it hit something just before the halfway point and swung back toward her. She looked around it to see the obstruction. When she saw, she let the door swing closed, found a chair and set it upright, and sat down, suddenly and completely stopped.

She had expected some chaos but not the mountain of cartons and cans that nearly filled the warehouse. All of the work of her inventorying and filing, gone to nothing. Worse, there was no path through the debris, nor would there be until she cleared one — or waited for a crew to arrive. The polycarbonate panels, stored against a far wall of the toolroom, would not save the greenhouse contents. Not this morning. Finding anything in that mess would be the work of several days. The plants needed her now.

After a moment of thought she stood and headed back at a run, retracing her steps until she reached her living quarters. Once there, she yanked open the door to the utility closet. There above her head on a shelf was another solution, just waiting for her to think of it. As the dog danced around her, delighted at her return, she reached out on tiptoe and tugged down a large scrap of heavy-duty plastic tarp left over from another project, folded and tucked into a corner. A kitchen drawer yielded a roll of duct tape, scissors and a utility knife. The wonders of modern technology, she thought, sometimes just boil down to whatever works.

“Stay,” she told the dog again, and it grudgingly sat as she ran again in the direction of the greenhouse.

Her first priority was to prevent further harm. She hurriedly strung the tarp to cover not just the largest hole but the entire section showing cracks, lopped off the excess and slapped enough duct tape around and across to hold it in place. In a storage cabinet, she found several folded sheets of polyester row cover already cut to the size of the beds. Laying the remains of the tarp aside she unfolded the sheets of spun polyester and spread them out like blankets over the chilled greens. The sheets were used routinely to cover the greenhouse overflow in spring, when bedding plants were moved outdoors to harden off before planting in the farmstead gardens. They would shelter these plants, at least holding the greenery above the freezing point.

When every section was blanketed, the greenhouse resembled the snow-covered gardens outside. Each bed of tender veggies and softwood cuttings was nestled in a cocoon of white, while the taller plants resembled ghostly sentinels in their individual wrappings. The warm room next door was luckier. There was little damage, but she draped her tropical pals with more of the row cover just in case. She shifted from overdrive to a more thoughtful pace, feeling her energy flag as the adrenaline in her system burned out. But who knew what lay ahead? Better to take the prudent way. And there was still a lot of park to examine for damage. She’d feel better knowing that this small corner was, for a time at least, secure. After breakfast she’d make repairs that would hold for more than the moment.

Now it was time to refuel. Amazingly, the kettle was still on the stove, and the burner would still heat. With tea water coming to a boil, she grabbed a handful of grapes, found an unbroken bowl and a box of cereal, and made a quick breakfast. The sugar had spilled but the milk bottle was intact. She added a chunked banana and shoveled in the comfort food, standing with her back to the littered counter. The view out the window was deceptively unchanged. Was the trouble over, or just beginning, she wondered.

Despite her grim conversation with Rudy earlier in the weekend, she hadn’t really expected a tremor of this size, especially here, far from the nearest major fault line, or this soon. She wondered what was happening elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, did she really want to know? She looked toward the television, noted its odd angle perched in the corner on its shelf and reached up to straighten it, but didn’t turn it on. Better to deal with the here and now first, and see to the things she might actually do something about.

In hindsight, she should have been better prepared for this. Of the entire compound, the greenhouse was probably the most vulnerable structure. Hard to prepare, though, for what you can’t really imagine. The mistake had only cost her work and time, so far. It could have been worse. But she was shaken. What else had she failed to anticipate?

For the past two days, news broadcasts had been filled with news, rumors, theories and conjectures about the changes in the earth’s magnetic field. Then had come more stories, these more hush-hush, about alleged movement of the polar ice cap. Other odd occurrences, such as the sudden appearance of hot volcanic mud bubbling up in a field in Russia, and reports of faulty altimeter readings on airplanes attempting to land at airports as widely spread as Omaha, Wichita, Dallas and Oklahoma City, made her begin adding up the score, as Rudy Diaz had done. Every prominent scientist claimed to be the most reliable authority on what was happening, but the truth was, how could anybody know for sure.

Sudden planetary changes were certainly a part of earth’s history; the proof was in the scars and craters scattered across the planet, some of them hundreds of millions of years old. A theory touted in years past blamed some kind of polar shift for the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Or a huge asteroid striking in the Yucatan. Either could be so. Whatever it was, it didn’t get ‘em all, though, she thought, managing a wry grin. Some of them lived to be the ancestors of snakes and turtles, probably chickens. And songbirds. So that disaster seemed to have turned out all right, though she doubted the dinosaurs would have shared her assessment.

She pitied the “authorities” whose job it was to keep order and avoid the mayhem people could create if there was widespread panic. It didn’t help that some scientists postured and some in the media still couldn’t resist their wild-eyed, breathless, edge-of-doom prognostications.

Of course, some people were onto the ruse and knew the scientists and government officials weren’t telling the whole truth. They wanted the straight story, but the authorities continued discounting all rumors, albeit with worried faces they couldn’t quite conceal. The situation was being monitored and people should remain calm, they repeated. What else could they say?

It had become increasingly clear to her, and probably would have even without Rudy’s warnings, that some kind of calamity on a planet-wide scale was not only possible but was now likely. On this particular part of the planet, Moira thought wryly, it’s just become damn near certain. But given that, what does one do? She rinsed her bowl and finished off her tea as if it were any normal workday and returned to her repair and reclamation efforts.

An hour later she wedged the last remnant of heavy plastic into place around the broken sections of window, closed the window frames firmly against the plastic and taped around its edges with duct tape. The remaining panels of unbroken or cracked but intact glass she taped with a liberal crisscrossing web of tape, using nearly the entire roll. “The hell with conservation,” she muttered savagely. “I’ve got a whole case of the stuff out there in the warehouse – somewhere.”

But it was much too soon to be thinking about the confusion in the warehouse. With this first emergency over, she’d best get down the hill quickly and see how the animals and the museum’s other structures had fared.

“Not well, but not as bad as could be” was the answer, she realized even before she arrived. She could hear the cacophony of animal and poultry noises echoing up the narrow valley long before the rooftops of the farmstead came into view. She paused only long enough to give the mill a cursory examination to determine if everything was still in its place. It was, except for a display of flour at the mill store that had come tumbling off its wooden shelf and struck a glass display case full of gift items. The case, gifts, and several small jars of honey lay in a flour-covered mound of shards and syrup. A mess, but nothing that couldn’t wait, she decided. Luckily, before leaving for the holiday, the miller had shut down the mill wheel and shifted the chute to one side, allowing the spring to cascade unimpeded in a great waterfall to the pool below. She called the dog away from its explorations and continued on.

Unlike the mill’s water-powered tools from pioneer days, the facility’s electrical plant, located under the spillway at the lower end of the millpond, provided the bulk of power today. The flow of water never stopped. Electrical power to the Center had not been interrupted by the tremor; proof of its wellbeing was in the lights still burning in her apartment. She gave the dam and spillway a cursory glance anyway but saw no damage. The spillway was a reinforced concrete bulwark below which the generator was anchored firmly in bedrock and reinforced with more concrete and steel.

She hurried on toward the shrill chorus of livestock proclaiming their fright and discomfort at the tops of their lungs. The chickens were fine, merely frightened and confused by the shakeup. Their house was standing but had been knocked slightly off its props at one corner, and would need shoring up. The rocks on which the bottom logs rested had shifted, she saw, and the doorframe sagged. She hastily measured out feed and filled their water urns from a well-concealed insulated hydrant. Thank God that pipe hadn’t broken. There were no eggs to be had.

She stepped outside where the pigs shrilled excitedly.

The young shoats were panicked and ran to hide as she stepped into the pen. But they peeked out as they heard her measuring out their ration of cracked corn and wheat middlings into a bucket, and overcame their fears as the grain cascaded into the trough. They oinked and muttered their discomfort all the way through breakfast in a non-stop porcine chorus. But then another aftershock shuddered through the farmstead, causing them to scream in almost human voices as they ran again to hide behind their houses. They peered out at her as she called to them in a shaky voice.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t help it.”

She sighed and headed for the main barn, where the cattle bawled and the horses were mysteriously silent.

Entering the cattle’s normally cozy home and looking for anything askew, she saw something else that chilled her, although she wasn’t sure the cattle understood its import. The side-to-side shaking that had characterized both the first quake and its aftershocks had pulled two of the loft supports away from their moorings, leaving the section of ceiling above the stalls unsupported. Seeing the tons of hay looming atop the loft floor, she wasn’t surprised they were sounding alarmed, but how did they know? No matter. This qualified as emergency number two and would need to be seen to very soon. She would try to get somebody from the maintenance crew on the phone and get them up here as soon as the roads were clear.

In the meantime, Moira began making soothing nonsense noises and uttering familiar words, speaking calmly and reassuringly to the beasts. She borrowed a heavy hammer and some spikes from the tool crib, set up a tall stepladder and managed to get both posts wedged back into a workable angle and nailed in place. To do more would require house jacks, and she wasn’t actually sure the facility owned any.

Moreover, a further inspection showed that all the loft supports had drifted slightly off-center. She went back to the tool crib behind the granary and got a heavy sledgehammer and more spikes, applying them both liberally until all the posts were more or less centered and secured to the beams above them. Her arms would take some days to recover from wielding the heavy hammer. She had no idea if this would keep things secure if more quakes occurred. But it was better than doing nothing. The barn’s builders had evidently given little thought to fastening the uprights to the beams, reasoning that the weight of the barn would hold everything in place. They also figured that the barn and the earth under it would stay where it was put, she thought wryly.

She scrambled up into the loft to put down more hay and went back to the granary for extra portions of sweet feed, murmuring more quiet words of reassurance as she let the calves remain with their mothers. Usually they were desperate to get in, and their mothers were in desperate need of being milked. Last night’s decision had avoided another small crisis and saved some time as well. She filled their water trough from the barn’s insulated tank, which was wide and deep, and full enough to have stayed in place.

It was time to check on the silent horses. She rolled aside the tall door swinging from its metal track and cried out. Where the south wall of the barn had been, there was an empty space, a cold, biting wind and thin sunshine. A section of the wall had fallen, and the horses were gone.

On closer examination, she determined that the wall might have had some help in falling. The massive Percherons had evidently panicked when the tremor started and had kicked their way free, going straight out the back side of their stalls, knocking loose in the process another section of wall that they shared with the yearlings’ stall. The young horses had also fled, presumably following the massive sable-colored mares. The only horses left inside the barn were the two pregnant Morgan mares who were huddled in the corner of their stall, wild-eyed and panting with fear. She brought them oats and fresh water, approaching them gingerly and staying out of the way of their nervous hooves. After securing their stall door, she threaded her way through the ruins of the barn’s south wall to the adjoining pasture and began calling. Suddenly the dog gave a joyful bark and bolted. Soon, here she came, dancing and weaving, one of the yearlings running before her. Deftly, she guided it into the corral and glanced up at Moira, awaiting instructions.

“Go get ’em,” Moira said, and the dog did.

Nearly an hour passed before she brought three more of the Morgans and one of the Percherons back to the corral. No point in trying to persuade them to return to their quarters when they couldn’t be contained there. Luckily, the corral was in the shelter of the barn and had its own open, roofed “loafing shed” normally used to shelter young animals from the summer sun. It was barely tall enough for the Percherons, but it would shelter the skittish equines from the cold and keep them safe, she hoped. She walked ahead of the horses into the enclosure, using for her lure a coffee can half full of sweet feed. She shook the can, and they knew the sound. With any luck, the remaining mare would return by evening.

Moira had done all she could for them for now. She made cursory examination of the village storefronts along the newly constructed Main Street and noted what needed repair before she began her weary climb back up the hill. Halfway there, another aftershock rumbled, a strong one, setting the frozen trees in motion, limbs moving in a macabre dance as she crouched and tried to keep her balance. The silence that followed was eerie, broken by the distant cry of an animal in fear or pain. The little canine was wild-eyed and panting but never left her side.

Back at the Center, the power was still on, and lights were glowing merrily. She would need the lights when she started to work in the windowless warehouse, sorting out the mess. But before that, she had to answer the phone.

Someone was calling! She was cheered considerably at the prospect of some contact with another human. But where was the phone? She followed the electronic chirping to its source beneath a jumble of books that included, ironically, the telephone directory. Eagerly she pressed the button to connect. Steven’s rumbling baritone was music to her ears.

“Hey, gal. I thought I was about to have to come out there and see about you.” He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Sure is good to hear your voice. How’s it goin’? Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on here,” Steven’s voice sounded shaken, too.

“Likewise. And pretty well, all things considered. It’s a mess, of course. You should see the warehouse. How is it over your way?”

“Not good, but not near as bad as over east. Epicenter’s on the New Madrid fault, from what we hear. No reports coming out of there, but the video coming in from fly-overs looks pretty scary. Memphis took a bad hit, and St. Louis too. All that brick, you know.”

“My God.” Then, before she could think, before she could stop herself, she blurted, “Listen, if this gets worse, I mean, a lot worse, you know, you can come here. Just load up your folks and bring ‘em.”

“Hey, Coach, this will all blow over. I mean, we may not make it to work tomorrow if things don’t settle down right away. But they will eventually. And if you get lonesome out there you just come on into town, or we’ll come and bring you. This ain’t a picnic, but we’ll weather it. We live in the Ozarks, remember? Now, tell me the truth. You need some help out there? Do I need to come on out and help clean up the damage? I will if you need me to. I don’t mind, shake up or no shake up.”

“Absolutely not. There’s no damage here that I can’t handle. There’s just a mess. Right now, your family needs you much more than me. I’m just telling you, Steven. You are all welcome here if , well, you know.”

“You know things I don’t know.” his voice was very quiet now, even grave. It was not a question.

“I don’t know anything for sure, Steven. But I’ve heard some things. And if you need a place … Just don’t forget, OK?”

He agreed, and went on updating her on news from the notoriously unstable New Madrid Fault zone. Though long dormant, it had once been the site of the most severe earthquakes in American history during the period between 1811 and 1813. It was not just one crack miles deep in the earth, but rather a vast network of fractures stretching far and wide from its central point beneath the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at Missouri’s “bootheel.” Studies had located cracks beneath the two river basins running several miles in each direction from where they met at Cairo, Ill. The center of the web of fractures ran directly below the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau, MO to a few miles below Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro by locals), where the main fault left the river and faded into a network of smaller cracks. Those ran generally southwest across the Missouri Bootheel, bisecting its namesake, New Madrid ( MAD-rid) County. Both Memphis and St. Louis were located square in the path of greatest danger.
Steven continued talking, filling her in on news from the world outside.

“Electric power went down for a while, right after the first quake. We figured it was probably the power plant over at Sikeston going off-line. They’re pretty close to the fault. But it just came back on a few minutes ago. Local radio news said we’re getting a temporary feed from the coal-fired plant over at Springfield. And Springfield TV said just a few minutes ago that electrical supply was way below normal across the whole grid, and we should be careful to use no more power than absolutely necessary. So we’re looking to see what we can cut back on, and talking to our neighbors. I hear the mayor’s called a town meeting for tonight. I tell you what, though. The city sure is glad it built its new water tank up on a hill and on the ground, instead of up on stilts in the middle of town.”

She mumbled “That’s good.”

“One reason I called was to remind you about the shortwave radio down at the smithy. It’s in my locker. It runs on batteries or regular household current. If you lose power, or if the grid shuts down and local stations can’t broadcast, at least you’ll be able to get some news from the outside.

“What about network news, or stuff on line?”

“Hardly any of that’s working just now. Technical difficulties, they’re saying, but …” His voice trailed off and when he spoke again his tone sounded less certain. “Look, I get what I think you’re trying to tell me. But in all probability, we’re all gonna be okay. No doubt we’re due for some major inconveniences until things get put back together. But hell, that’s nothing we can’t handle. I could still come over, if you need me to help.”

She appreciated his concern for her welfare and his thoughtfulness in calling. She suspected, however, that being cooped up in a small house with three rowdy youngsters for the past few days accounted as much for his devotion to duty as anything else, so she didn’t waver. She was glad she hadn’t pressed harder on the issue of offering his family shelter. He had heard but hadn’t really understood. It didn’t matter. If the worst came, he would remember. She put a reassuring note in her voice.

“You all just stay put. Everything’s fine here. Well, almost. I had to do some repair on the greenhouse, and the horses kind of remodeled the barn a little bit. But there’s nothing that won’t wait. You stay with your family. We may not be out of the woods yet. They still haven’t figured out what’s happening up north yet. And by the time they do, who knows where we’ll be?” She was trying for a note of cheer, but Stephen’s answer sobered her. He had been listening after all.

“The fact is, Moira, I expect we don’t really know where any of us will be by the end of next week, or even if we’ll all be alive. I mean, I’m hoping for the best. I hope I’ll show up for work in a few days just like usual, and all this bad stuff they’re saying might happen will turn out to just be talk. Or it will happen to other people in other places. Or not at all. But there’s nothing sure. I just want you to know that…well, I know this sounds weird, but … if things get really crazy and I live through it, I’ll be there, sooner or later. You follow me? I’ll get out there some way, or send somebody. We won’t forget about you and just leave you out there by your lonesome. I want you to remember that, in case things get hairy. One way or another, I’ll get there, or I’ll send someone.”

Moira knew he meant to reassure her, but his words sent a chill up her back. She was not the only one who faced an uncertain future – it could mean everyone, everywhere on earth. But how many were having to face it alone? She needed to get a grip. If she let any fear show in her voice, he would come now. He had that hero instinct. And there were unspoken bonds between them.

But this was her post, not his. Her responsibilities were to this place, and his were to his family. She appreciated his attempt to reassure her, and she said so. Then she rang off quickly, leaving what was unspoken to take care of itself.

“I’m good, Steven. I really am,” she said. And as she set the receiver down she added, “Take care of your own, brother man.”

Steven’s voice in the phone and his concern for her had taken the edge off her panic. In the days that followed, Moira would have his words to remember, but little else. Meanwhile, it was time, perhaps well past time, to confront the rest of the so-called doomsday stash.

In a corner of the administrative wing that had doors opening on both a conference room and the warehouse, Moira kept a small office that was unlike the one in which she greeted the public. This one was strictly for her own work. Tall shelves, files, tables for drawing and dabbling – her playroom, some called it. It was here she’d had the help bring the mysterious bags and boxes that had begun popping up in her incoming shipments, marked urgent and personal, and not listed anywhere on her invoices.

Most of them were where she had left them, although some had spilled out from under her desk. She pulled up one at random, rummaged in a drawer for a utility knife and sliced open the end of the box. A small seedling with oddly shaped leaves peered out. Instructions were enclosed.

“What the hell…” she muttered. The next box held a stack of wireless broadband cards, sealed in impervious containers. The next, a couple dozen of the smallest, most highly advanced tablet/laptop computers she had ever seen, all of them sealed like the cards. Another held a stash of high tech watches with screens.

“What the hell…” she said again. She was to repeat herself many times before the afternoon was through. And there were still many packages to go, buried somewhere in the pile. Finally a nudge reminded her she needed a break, and so did the dog.

A walk in the snowy woods and a cup of tea later, she felt less alone and more able to face what might lie ahead, at least one step at a time. Having the dog there helped. It needed a name, though.

“What do you suppose might be a good name for a noble beast like yourself?” she inquired.

“Arf,” the dog replied.

“Not very imaginative,” she said.

The dog whined.

“All right. I’ll wait for an inspiration, Ok?”

At that point the dog whirled and took off after a squirrel, making her laugh for the first time in days. “I don’t care what your name is. I’m keeping you,” she called after.

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter 2: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving morning dawned clear and cold. Moira awoke to sparkling, dancing shafts of pale winter sunlight filling the windows of her small apartment. The little abode was not much more than a cubby built into a niche on the back side of the visitors center. From the inside entrance it was just a couple steps across a hallway connecting the administrative portions of the facility to a door into the main exhibit hall. The outer door to her personal space was more private, allowing easy and shelterd access to the park. A light snow had fallen in the night,  sugarcoating surfaces and softening the edges of the stark end-of-autumn landscape.

Awakened by the chatter of juncos and chickadees at the feeders outside, Moira dressed hurriedly in Levi’s and cotton pullover and added a sweatshirt, gloves, a cap with earflaps, and blanket-lined denim farm coat. She was so eager to get outdoors, she nearly scalded herself trying to hurry her tea.

She poured the tea into an insulated mug, stepped into worn but well-treaded boots, and made her way outside, tongue still smarting from the tea and eyes blinking at the brilliant day. With a glance at her watch, she breathed in the icy breeze, strode over to the public walkway, and headed down the hill at a brisk walk. Even on a holiday, there was much to do and no time to waste.

Oddly, she’d enjoyed  a good night’s sleep even after another evening contemplating the possibly coming fall into the abyss, if that’s what it was. This is how it must be in war-torn countries or similar places where catastrophes had already happened. Anxiety became such a dominant element in one’s thoughts that the body and brain just put up a damper to quell its effects, so no matter how bad the news, one could still function at a level close to normal. Just stay in the now, she told herself. Doomsday or not, the chores awaited.

Last night’s discussion with Rudy’s carefully selected group of highly intelligent “preppers” had not actually cheered her but had made her glad she had asked to join in. Some others appeared to feel the same, especially those who believed they might have found solutions to some of their own issues from the photos she’d provided of the heirloom farm tools and machinery.

“Far easier to put a wheel on an axle if you know what the hell it’s supposed to look like,” one observed.

There were fifteen of them, scattered from Nova Scotia to the Cascades, the Wasatch Front to the Superstition Mountains, all ensconced on carefully selected hopefully stable underpinnings and at elevations above 1,000 feet . Moira was surprised to hear about one other installation relatively close by, but farther up in the highlantds. Most were nearer the coasts. It gave a whole new context for “friends in high places,” someone joked.

Last night’s session revealed some had begun to get whispers of installations underway or being planned in other countries, notably Australia and Norway. If they were just now starting to plan, they were already too late, one group member observed. Hopefully that wasn’t the case.

Rudy had been doing his best, but they had not yet found a way to make contact with any of their counterparts in other lands. The outpost almost within hailing distance of Falling Spring, on the other side of Tom Sauk mountain, was an impromptu installation created by Jim Parsons, a retired park ranger, one of Rudy’s mentors, who had augmented his retirement plan after hearing from Rudy some of the dire speculations. Parsons had gathered his extended family (wife, mother and father-in-law, a younger brother and his family, and some family friends) for an extended “reunion” at their mountain cabin, which happened to be located near a substantial cavern system. Parsons had married a Mormon girl, and folks in that tradition were already accustomed to keeping food stored against  possible world ruin, he’d said. Her people were already “preppers,” he had joked, but they sure didn’t expect it to happen like this. His entire extended family had spent most of the past month moving their combined stores into a dry area of the cave system, and were getting settled in. She hoped she would eventually get to know them all. If there was time. Another subject that didn’t bear thinking about.

Besides, her life was difficult enough on this day fending off the ghosts of Thanksgivings past. She made a wry face. Well, then, thank God or whoever was listening that there was work to do, enough that she might entirely avoid the spectacle of watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade through tears of self pity, as had been her recent experience.

Good grief, her inner self spoke, bringing to a halt her rambling thoughts. Self-pity,indeed. She should be giving thanks there actually was a Macy’s parade and it could still happen. After the disasters visited on the world’s people in these recent years, finding anything to celebrate was amazing. The human spirit might be twisted at times, but it was still strong; people were discovering a capacity for resilience in the face of troubles beyond anything she could have imagined. She was embarrassed at the paralyzing effects of the melancholy she sometimes felt over her family troubles. What were her small complaints compared to genuine tragedies?

“Get over yourself, kid,” she muttered through her teeth. “Your life – your family – not perfect. It is what it is. Deal with it and move on.” She continued muttering to herself as she strode down the asphalt path.

Some of the fault was her own, she’d be the first to admit. Her attempt to entertain her family with the stories of her newly found Ozarks alternative community had been a poor idea. After all, she had separated herself long ago from her family’s hidebound conservatism. Once out in the wider world, she had soon discovered that the communities her parents had spoken of with such disdain were just people, no more, no less, and certainly deserving of respect. At the university she had also been exposed to cultures and classes of folks far different from her own. And their food. My God, how could you not love people who made pad Thai and bulgogi and piroshkis. And tabouli! Then she had to laugh. She’d forgotten to have breakfast, so better lay aside any thought of exotic foods until the chores were done.

But, as she brought herself back to the point of that thought, the fact was her family had disapproved strongly of her friends from the very first time she came home to visit. Soon after assuming her current post, she had met, through Steven,  a group of highly entertaining and unique individuals of disparate origins, most of whom had moved to the Ozarks in the 1970s and 80s, lured by real estate ads offering cheap land, lower crime rates, and a pristine rural lifestyle. Finding themselves surrounded by some unexpectedly xenophobic, often backward thinking folks who were among their neighbors, they had joined with other like-minded locals and newcomers in a loose-knit tribe of liberals, libertarians, and a fair scattering of lesbians that had created over the years a low key but tightly knit community—a family of choice, who called themselves the back-to-the-landers. They were colorful, well read, and living in relationships diverse enough to defy description. And they held great affection for one another despite their many differences.

Local color wouldn’t describe the kinds of folks one was likely to meet at a potluck, she’d told her folks at the Thanksgiving dinner table a year ago. There were Wiccan potters, Buddhist vegetarians, Scientologist greengrocers, Unitarian lesbians, PhD carpenters, goat-raising social workers, and everybody in between. She had never at any of her past postings or any other time of her life experienced such a mutually respectful community of friends. All their various opinions and world views seemed happily gathered in a general spirit of generosity and good will. And above all, they were kind to each other and to their surroundings, whether people, animal, plant or planet.

She had told them she was blessed to have stepped into a true communion of spirit, as these lovely folks with their high-minded but homespun ways welcomed her into their midst. It was amazing to her that they, and she, had landed in such an unlikely place as these hard hills, characterized as they were by isolation, poor prospects, and poorer resources.

Here, in this improbably thriving community, a cultural counterpoint to the surrounding poverty and difficult circumstances, she had come to discover a new level of comfort with her own views, in a kinship based on shared vision, open minds, and kindness. The transformation in her thinking over time had been so natural, so comfortable that she had been a little stunned when her parents had behaved as if she had suddenly decided to reject all they took to be holy and take up the trappings of a terrorist. But that wasn’t it at all. She’d just found and taken her own path, a way to which she had always been drawn. It was an admittedly unorthodox but very natural set of country ways, and she’d settled in as though born to it.

Of course you’d have to know these folks to realize how harmless they were. What was the big deal about a Solstice gathering, for instance? She’d taken a liking to some of these freethinking pagans, actually, and had enjoyed their conversations about the origins of Christianity, the gender of God and other head-bending topics. But as for going over to the Devil, she’d discovered the religion of the most pagan among them was actually earth-based, in other words, in their belief system there was no such thing as a devil. In their view, such a being simply didn’t exist. Sure, there was evil in the world, but it was in us, not something apart. It was part of human nature and our mission was to rid ourselves of its influence. How cool was that? She’d tried to explain that to her tradition-bound kin, but they weren’t having it.She wished she’d just kept her mouth shut about the whole thing.

She was still muttering under her breath as she rounded the turn, but she stopped short with a gasp, rocked back on her heels by the sudden opening of the scene before her. “Mother of God,” she whispered, astonished anew at the view into the long river valley, with its rock bluffs, its broad vistas and deep hollows. She would never get used to this pristine manifestation of  a perfect heaven.

The snow had brought the clouds to earth and set into them an enclosed bowl rimmed by tall pines and wide crowned oaks. At its center was the mill pond built centuries ago by the first European immigrants to capture the outflow from Falling Spring. It was more than an abandoned historical site. It was the magical heart of this ancient house of the spirit. It was because of this, without question, that the First People had gathered here in ancient days, this the reason the village had been built and rebuilt, and now was why the museum and the park that protected it existed.

It was certainly why she had felt called to take on the job of steward of this isolated place. From the moment she had glimpsed the first photos, she had lobbied hard for this posting. And now there it lay, available to her every morning and now spread doll-sized below her — the historic limestone bluff with its unique spring that spouted out from a channel between the rocks, and the dark pool that reflected the scene in reverse. The entire shadowed length of the bluff had been transformed into a cold cathedral of icicles wreathed in thick hoar frost, created as the fifty-degree column of falling water roared through the twenty-degree air and plunged into the rippling waters of the pond. If God wasn’t here, then where was He? Or She. Or Whatever name one might call the most high, the most holy.

She stood transfixed, watching the smoking, swirling currents of air as they rose from the water’s surface. Away from the spring’s outflow the pond was calm, its waters rimed with ice and thatches of frosty foliage along its grassy banks. Overhead, scattered wisps of cloud punctuated a clear sky. But the sun had not yet penetrated this deep hollow. Some of the icicles that hung from the north-facing rock bluffs were six feet or more in length. Out of the sun’s reach, they could grow until the January thaw. If there was one. She shivered and resumed her trek down the path.

As she descended the last loop of trail, a trio of tan, heritage-breed Campbell ducks bobbing on the pond announced her presence to the world, their braying calls sounding more like coarse laughter than the quack-quacks attributed to them.

“Tell me another one,” she called to them and received more brassy guffaws in return. Shaking off her earlier mood, she grinned and applauded their tipsy maneuvers as each popped beneath the surface and bobbed up again moments later, mouths full of greenery. It was too cold to stand still for long. She stamped her feet, chilled even in their insulated boots, and continued on to the farmstead, where a unique collection of farm animals awaited her attention. She admired, in passing, the broad lines of the well-kept late 19th century farmstead home, with its long front porch and summer kitchen, but she had only one errand there and it was soon accomplished. She trotted down the stone steps that led to the farmhouse basement and banked the fire in the wood furnace. With the tourists gone there was no one to be kept warm, and no plumbing to freeze. Once that was done and its doors were shut tight, she moved on to the next task – breakfast for all.

First stop was the hog pen, where the wiry and excitable Tamworth shoats and sows bumped and jostled one another, jockeying for position at the trough, waiting for their morning meal of cracked corn and wheat middlings. Unappealing as they were, these beasts were a welcome change from the nasty creatures they’d replaced, she thought. The museum’s mission was to show Ozarks life as it had been in pioneer times as realistically as possible, down to the animal breeds and the plant varieties that had been common in those earlier days. That mission had figured prominently in her having scored highest among applicants for the job as administrator,  as she was the only agriculture specialist who applied.

But one look at the ridge-backed porcine monsters residing at the museum when she arrived had been enough for her to issue them their walking papers. Rare they were, but too dangerous to be just a rail-and-wattle fence away from the public. She’d recognized the treacherous beasts by the breed’s reputation – a cross between the descendants of Ossabaw Island hogs stranded by a Colonial-era Spanish shipwreck on an island off the Georgia coast, with wild Arkansas razorback hogs left by other Spanish explorers who had traveled up the White River valley through Arkansas and southern Missouri in the 1540s. It was an evil combination that accentuated the toughness of both breeds but tended, coming as it did from two very small gene pools self-selected for survival skills, to accentuate such undomestic traits as aggressiveness, wily intelligence, and a general hatred of anything that moved.

Behind an electric fence they might have been relatively safe to keep on display. But with only the rail fences of the 1880s, even reinforced by the 19th century’s version of barbed wire, they were an accident waiting to happen. In fact, a pair of young boars had made their escape not long before she arrived, destroyed a patch of turnips in the farmstead garden, and killed a cat before taking to the woods. They were never recaptured. In her opinion and that of the employees who worked with them, the whole bunch had already overstayed their welcome.

Everyone had been happy when the remaining beasts were hauled away, traded to a more secure facility in return for the marginally less authentic but vastly more personable Tamworths. The worst these homely little red critters could do, she thought as she dodged one squealing shoat and dumped the last of the grain into the trough, was to run you over in pursuit of their corn. That one action, ridding the museum of the hoodlum hogs, had earned her many points with her crew.

The other animals who occupied the demonstration farmstead now had mostly been selected before Moira’s arrival, but she was very satisfied with the rest of the breeds presented here. And the criteria made sense. Would they have been in the Ozarks in the 1880s? was the question. If the answer was yes, most of the other questions were moot, except for a critical look at how they interacted with humans. They didn’t have to be friendly but they were at least required to be civil. With the Ossabaws gone, they were.  That, and the fact that it was feeding time, made them all very happy to see her.

She methodically parceled out grain and kitchen scraps to the rare red bourbon turkeys and speckled “dominecker” chickens, then started on the residents of the big barn. The first duty was to the equines because they were the most vocal. She clambered up to the hayloft in the main barn to toss down hay for the massive Percheron draft horses and the quicker, smaller Morgans. Below the loft’s other side were the cattle and oxen, some of whom had calves but were separated from them overnight by a sturdy fence. She filled their mangers, too, and hopped down to add some grain for all but the milkers.

From the bins in the granary she filled a bucket with mixed grains sweetened with molasses, poured it into a series of feeding pans in the milk parlor, gave some to the lonely calves, and led the friendly Jersey and milking short-horn cows from their stalls into their stanchions to take the morning milk. Because no visitors were present she used a small portable milking machine instead of milking by hand as was done in demonstrations, and finished quickly, leaving some of the milk for the eager calves. She emptied the result into a pair of tall buckets, noting in passing that the back door to the milk house was ajar. Steven may have done it on purpose so the barn cats could complete their mousing chores, so she left the door open and poured the last dregs of the foamy milk into a shallow pan for their breakfast. Then she opened the stanchions and let the calves in with their mothers. Moira welcomed the sun’s rays peeking over the ridge as she carried the buckets outside, but she knew it would be hours before the cold abated. The sooner she could get her aching toes to somewhere warm, the better.

It was mid-morning by the time she finished and trudged back up the hill to her cozy apartment, a pail in each hand. In the meantime the sun had retreated again behind thickening clouds, suggesting that more snow was on the way. No matter, she thought. Most of her day would be spent indoors, and the outdoors could use the moisture. The heavy buckets went straight to the small commercial kitchen off the warehouse where the farmhouse food served to visitors was actually prepared. By long habit, she slipped a filter into the milk strainer and poured the pails of fresh, still slightly warm milk through it into a series of wide-mouthed urns, which she then stowed in a large commercial cooler alongside several similar jugs. It was almost time to make more cheese. But that chore would be someone else’s. At least she hoped so.

Back in her quarters she put the kettle on to boil and, reneging on her earlier vow to avoid televised holiday celebrations, reached for the TV remote. The signal was clear and the picture perfect, but it wasn’t the parade.  Instead, a news bulletin was being broadcast. She put down her spoon and the sugar bowl and moved closer to the TV.

“. . . an  apparent shift in the earth’s magnetic field was discovered yesterday in data recorded at the space station . . . a possible malfunction in a sensor on the station was at first . . . ” The signal dissolved into snowy reception, as it sometimes did in these hills, and Moira puzzled over the announcement. What were they talking about? What data? And if the magnetic fields were changing, what did that mean?  She searched her memory for some context. As if in answer, the picture and sound returned, this time revealing someone she recognized, a top NASA scientist, being interviewed. ” . . .  never seen anything like this, so we’re still examining the data, but at this point we just don’t know. It could be related to recent solar activity. Or it might be something to do with the Wyoming disturbances. We should have more information within a few hours.”

“Disturbances? What disturbances?” she snapped at the screen. Again, the answer to her question came swiftly, and the next speaker’s voice seemed strained. In the brief moments when the picture was clear, he looked pale, like someone who’d been up all night with a colicky baby.

“We don’t know if it’s related to whatever is going on out there. We’re also seeing some unusually high tides as this “anomaly” comes nearer, and there’s a bit of an increase in earthquake activity as well. But we really don’t anticipate anything too spectacular . . . but in truth, we don’t know any more than you do. We’re having to watch and wait, just like you. In the meantime, we’re picking up some really spectacular video from our satellites up around the Arctic rim. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Aurora Borealis like this in my lifetime. I hope we can bring some of this to our viewers. . . . should be able to get a better picture of the whole situation by the weekend.”

But when an interviewer asked what else the magnetic upset might be signaling, she thought the scientist seemed worried as he looked off-camera and said “That’s all I’m at liberty to say right now.”

Cursing, Moira muted the sound, went to her desk, removed a small box from beneath a pair of directories, opened it to reveal her satellite phone, and pressed speed dial. If this was a signal that the end had begun, she needed to know about it,  and she knew the number to call. Should she batten down the hatches, or just mind her own business? It was time to talk to Rudy again.

“Is there something new I need to know this morning?” she asked when he picked up the phone. “What’s up?”

“Something, for sure,” he said. “How big a something we don’t know, so I can’t tell you much. I’ve been listening to the news feeds since before daylight here and I can’t make any sense out of them. Everybody’s telling a different story, but they’re all obviously shooting in the dark. Whatever it is, it’s happening very fast.”

“Wait. Let’s back up. First of all, what’s the confusion? Last I knew we were watching the Northern Lights because of  increased sunspot activity or whatever. But this guy on TV looked like he was in a real sweat. What is he not telling?”

“Something’s … moving. Up north. It’s something to do with the ice cap, what’s left of it. Something’s way off up there under the ice. And Wyoming is jiggling like the cap on a pressure cooker. Little quakes, too many to count. Normally that’s a good sign, that means pressure is being released gradually. But I don’t know. I keep listening, waiting for somebody to drop the ball and give us a real clue about what they think might be happening. So far, nobody has. But if my ear is any good, those who have the most information are about to wet their pants.”

“Um, are you telling me, dear friend, that we should be kissing our asses goodbye?”

The security chief made a disparaging sound through his teeth.

“You know those guys. If it was, they’d not say so for fear of stirring up a panic. Even if we hadn’t seen too many disaster movies, the hits we’ve taken these past few years have already screwed some pretty significant real estate. People are still in shock from that.”

And then his voice lowered, and he cleared his throat and seemed to hesitate.

“On the other hand…” he hesitated. “Look, I don’t want to spook you, but I’ve been doing some lurking on the secure channels for the past few hours, and, you know, I don’t think they’re holding back. I think they just really don’t have a clue what’s going on, because nothing like this has ever happened before, at least in human history. Have you opened all the stuff in your stash?”

“I’ve been putting it off, to tell the truth, and I’m not sure I’ve even found it all yet. It’s on today’s list, after dinner and the parade. I had just turned on the tube when this stuff came on.”

“Well, you won’t find anything particularly reassuring.  But you’ll see we’ve been reaching out in a lot of different directions, putting together  this “survival kit.” We realized early on we needed to respond to the possibility, which seems to be increasing as we speak, that some significant areas of the planet are becoming unstable on a very dangerous level. I told you that the possibility of major earth movements were being projected not only in the Pacific rim but in formerly quiet areas like the New Madrid fault zone and along the White River up near you. And in addition to the swarms of quakes, the lava dome in Wyoming has risen significantly as the quakes continue. And there’s a large area of the Great Plains from Nebraska clear down into Texas that appears to be subsiding, very slowly but enough to measure.

“The combination of all these effects is enough to cause some of us who’ve been sending you these little care packages to consider seeking shelter for ourselves pretty soon. A few are already headed for the hills. The rest are tryin’ our best to figure out if we’ve done enough and stored enough and made enough available in enough different places for some of us to make it. We hope we’ve done enough.  But I think we’re about to run out of time.

“Not us, as individuals, I mean, but us, the species, our various civilizations. Because this really might be it. The big Kablowski. We had to do something. We don’t wanna go all the way back to the Stone Age or worse. We don’t want to lose everything. Obviously there’s a lot we could stand to lose, but…”

“Jesus! You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“You bet your ass, sweetheart. I’ve been serious for a long time. I just couldn’t go along any longer with all the liars and fumblers. I mean, even now. We may be looking at the goddam end of the world, and the only thing some of them are working on is to somehow blame it on terrorism, or at least the other political party. Some of the paranoids up here in D.C. have decided  someone’s been boogering the Hubbell scope and that what it’s showing isn’t really happening. But there’s a big hunk of something out there that they can’t make fit their theory, so now they’re working on who they should nuke.

“To be fair, it’s had our best minds baffled as well. Until now. From what I understand, they know what it is. They just don’t know what it’s going to do. From the chatter I’ve picked up, the folks on the station are seeing some things they’ve never seen before, and  it’s got them pretty scared. They think it may be that rogue planet that’s just wandering along on its own path and passing by on a visit. I’d never heard of such a thing but it turns out there are a lot of them out there. We’ve just never had one visit before. It doesn’t seem to be on a trajectory that will hit us but it’ll be close enough to do some damage. I think we’re already beginning to see that. It should be visible very soon, I’m told.

“So, back to your very first question – I don’t have an answer. My training says I should tell you to carry on until we know more. My gut, on the other hand, tells me you might want to settle up with your nearest and dearest and get right with your Maker. I swear on my mother,” he said, and she could hear the emotion in his voice. “We’ve put everything we had into getting as many as possible as ready as we could make them in the event this turns out as bad as it could be, and now I don’t think nearly enough of us are ready enough, God help us. But we’ve done the best we can. I hope to God we’re not the only ones who’ve been trying.”

“Hey, my friend,” she said, trying to shake him from this dark turn of mind. “Don’t worry about me. The warehouse out here is bursting at the seams. I’ve got enough stock on hand to weather about anything. And I’m sitting on this big rock that is the Ozarks Highlands. So if this business turns out to be really bad, at least I won’t go hungry or run out of toilet paper,” she added with an attempt at a laugh, which he joined. Then they went quiet, thinking about the possibilities as yet unknown.

“Take care of yourself, my friend,” he said softly.

“Yeah, you too. And thank you. For everything. If we have a chance, it will be because you gave us one.”

“De nada. Vaya con Dios, commadre.”

She smiled at his attempt at the feminine inflection but found tears suddenly springing to her eyes.

“You too, man,” she answered, and rang off. A brief flash of memory struck her then, of a much younger Rudy lifting a stein of ale in her direction at the party on the night they graduated from the academy. Despite her gender, he said, she would always be the toughest nut in the bunch. It might have been so, she thought, but she certainly didn’t feel like it now.

It was the remark about getting right with your family that got to her first. She would never be right with her family, planetary emergency or not. There was too much distance between them to ever make it right. It wasn’t just their opinion of her friends. There was also her divorce, in which they’d taken her ex-husband’s side, because, after all, he was perfect. After that she’d stretched family ties to their limits by putting distance both emotional and geographic, between them. No calamity, natural or otherwise, could heal or change that. Add to that the fight over religious sacred cows, and there wasn’t much left to be repaired. She still smarted from the shouting match when she had suggested their version of Christianity had been shaped by ignorant fundamentalism. It might not be what her home church believed, she had said, but its leaders certainly weren’t taking any pains to challenge medieval thinking that was out of touch with the modern world. She had known things had gone too far when her sister called her a Satanist. It was ugly. And that had happened just last Thanksgiving, come to think of it. God, Goddess, whatever. Talk about the ghost of Thanksgivings Past. She’d not sat down to dinner with any of them or had a civil conversation since. Maybe she should call and attempt some fence mending. Or not.

She turned back to the television to see that this time there was a parade. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day extravaganza was underway, but she no longer wanted to watch it. She turned off the television, finished making her tea, and stood at the window next to her breakfast table looking out at the bird feeder, watching the cardinals, finches, chickadees and titmice duke it out over their seedy repast. She stood like that for a long time, her hand cupped around the mug, staring past the birds to the barren hillside and the icicles hanging from the rocky outcrops.

“Ah, the hell with it,” she said aloud, shaking herself out of her morose reverie. “You can be bull-headed and full of yourself, or you can just do the decent thing and break the ice. After all, you’re the one who’s been giving everyone the cold shoulder,” she said into the small oval mirror that hung next to the window, angled so she could give her hair a last look every morning before venturing out to meet the public. “Besides, if you’re all that hot about this Mother Earth thing, shouldn’t you be, well, more . . . nurturing, or something?” She made a face at the mirror, whirled and reached for the phone, this time the land line. If she hurried, she could catch at least some of them before they headed out for the day.

“Hello, Mom?  Hey, happy Turkey day.”

By noon she had talked to the whole family, or all the ones that counted, with varying outcomes. Her mother still lamented about Moira’s divorce but was glad to hear from her and responded in loving tones. Forgotten, it seemed for the moment, were questions about her soul. Just as well. But also absent was any mention of possible upcoming calamity. She quickly realized she knew both too little and too much to attempt that conversation, and no one seemed interested in bringing it up.

Her parents had divorced during the previous year and when she contacted her father he, too,  seemed happy to hear from her and told her how proud he was of her in her new job. But he soon changed the subject to complain about the awful time he was having trying to live alone. “You women have it so much easier making a home, you know?” he said, and she laughed, remembering his long and steadfast refusal to learn anything about any job he considered part of domestic life.

She did her own changing of subjects when the conversation seemed headed toward their troubles with one another, the break-up of their marriage, or anything even remotely resembling religion. “I can only imagine what you’re going through. It’s hard for everyone these days,” she said pointedly, then fended off firmly anything that seemed headed toward her beliefs, her relationship prospects, or her own failed marriage.

Stop that! she admonished herself. It wasn’t a failure. Staying would have been the real failure. She had chosen to get out because it was the only sane option left. Not that Keith had cared all that much if she was sane, so long as wifely duties and other personal services were attended to. If ever there had been a man with a toxic level of self-esteem, Keith was it. She pondered calling just to offer a truce and wish him a happy Thanksgiving, but then in her mind she heard his voice, drawling “Of course you do, Darling. Fetch me a drink, would you?”

Her holiday sentiments were getting out of hand. There was really only one more number to call. But when she reached her sister’s answering machine instead of Fran herself, she was relieved. She had been dreading this call most of all because conversations with Fran were, even at the best of times, difficult. Fran nursed grudges, always had. Even against her own children when they failed her. And of course they did. Everyone failed her. No conversation would be complete without a few swipes at Mom and Dad for not giving Fran the attention she’d needed or the training to grow into a good and loving mother. She was sure to have some ugly crack saved up about devil worshippers, Moira knew. So she whipped out a cheery greeting, offered good wishes to the answering machine, and got off fast, just in case Fran was merely screening her calls and deciding whom she would deign to answer. Cut to the chase, Moira thought, warbling a too-cheerful goodbye, and get the hell out of Dodge.

But once it was done, she placed the receiver in its cradle, closed her eyes, and leaned her head against the wall. This must be what it felt like to die, she thought. Every conversation had felt like a last goodbye that was understood but could not be acknowledged. “I’ll see you,” she had said to them all, knowing the chance of that was like a leaf in a strong wind, eluding capture as it swept along on currents far beyond the power of humankind’s control.

She sat like that for some minutes, beyond tears, seeing their faces, wishing she could somehow hold them up to some sacred light so that whatever happened, they would not be hurt by it or made afraid. They were not bad people. And they were hers, or had been. But there was no power on earth that would let her step between them and their likely fates in the coming maelstrom. After a while she huffed a sigh and stood. It was time to prepare her tiny homage to Thanksgiving dinner.

She set the precooked turkey breast out to finish thawing, topped off her tea with a jot of hot water from the kettle, and swept through the interior doorway, headed for the warehouse like a woman on a mission. The mission was to cheer the hell up, get busy, and get some work done. She set to with a vengeance.

Doing the family thing hadn’t exactly cheered her but it had certainly helped reinforce her perception of her dysfunctional family. Hell, none of them had even mentioned the news or the possibility of impending planetary doom. They’d probably decided it didn’t concern them, she thought. She heard the self-righteousness in her unvoiced pronouncements. Hmmm. Could it be that this particular acorn wasn’t falling all that far from the tree?

“Ahem,” she said aloud, “could we quit with this introspection nonsense and get to work, please?” She willed her thoughts to attend to the tasks at hand.

By two o’clock she’d succeeded in creating a virtual city of stacked boxes; toilet tissue and paper towels soared in tall columns, joined by lower stacks of heavier items: cases of vinegar, scouring powder, baking soda, and soap-making ingredients. Good choices, all. Low-impact cleaning supplies saved money, met with historic parameters and gave the environment a break. A triple win.

She surveyed her just-created “cityscape,” then used the hand-operated fork lift to move three pallets of rock salt into the maintenance area. One more to go, and that one was going for a ride. After a side trip to brew another cup of tea, she would slide the last pallet of salt into the back of her little red truck, fork lift and all, and drive it out the paved road that connected Falling Spring historic site and heritage farm to the rest of the world. The county-maintained roadway went all the way up to the top of the ridge, where it met the main highway four miles away. But she didn’t intend to follow it that far. Instead, she would go a little more than a mile to a turnoff down an unmarked graveled track that wound its way off the ridge top to meet the old road to Falling Spring Village whose track lay down along the bottom of the hollow, following the river. Most of that road was now on park grounds and was no longer a public thoroughfare. It was only maintained for trips such as these. She would enter the fenced portion of the museum grounds from that lower road and store the salt in a maintenance shed out near the lower gate. There the salt could easily be accessed for use in curing meat, brining pickles, and other pioneer-day tasks demonstrated at the living history farmstead. The salt kept here up top would mostly be used for clearing the museum parking lot of ice in winter.

Down the hill, along with the salt, would go a half-dozen rolls of reproduction antique barbed wire, two shovels borrowed last week from down-slope and not returned, a dozen rolls of sisal baling twine for the horse-drawn baler, and the grain dolly she’d borrowed for unloading the delivery trucks. A second load of pig iron and assorted replacement blacksmithing tools would have to wait for another day, when stronger arms and a stronger vehicle were available. The iron would overload her small truck and she wasn’t sure, even if she got it loaded into the truck bed, she could actually get it out again without Steven’s help, as there was no loading dock at the smithy. Best to just keep the heavier materials around until needed, she reasoned. Meanwhile, she pulled, pried, and wrestled the small but extremely heavy wooden crates away from the doors and rolled the last pallet of salt out onto the dock.

Then she stopped. The plan was good but the timing sucked. She watched as a curtain of penny-size flakes of snow wafted lazily down to drop into a mass of their fellows, stacked an inch deep already on the uncovered end of the dock. There might be enough weight on the back wheels of the truck to make the trip down the hill. But with the weight off, how would she get back up? She sighed and pulled the salt back inside. Time to go to Plan B, and Plan B was turkey and trimmings.

Back in her tiny kitchen, she moved the pre-cooked meat from its plastic coffin to a stoneware platter, balanced a chunk of butter atop it, and put it into the oven, along with a pair of baking potatoes and an acorn squash, halved, seeded, and drizzled with butter, cinnamon and brown sugar. Two home-canned jars, one of corn and another of green beans, and a store-bought can of cranberry sauce would round out the meal. She set the oven dial, donned her coat, gloves and a cap with earflaps, and wound her way out through the public area to the visitor center’s entrance to savor a brief walk in this new snow.

The pinewood and buckbrush thicket alongside the lane between the visitor center and the paved county road was one of her favorite haunts after hours.  If peace and serenity were to be found this day, it would be here among these whispering conifers. She offered her face to the snow-filled breeze and stepped out into the silence. Crunching her way down the lane, she startled a young doe, but it dashed only a short distance before stopping still within the cover of the pines. She flicked her ears in warning, but Moira made no move toward her and she stayed in cover.

Not a single track marred the county road, adding to the  solitude. To her left, the road dead-ended at a canoe put-in on the Eleven Point National Scenic River less than a mile away. To the right, it wound about the shoulder of the hill, disappearing some distance away between two tall man-made rock bluffs carved out by the road’s builders. The original dirt track, probably an Indian trail, had reached Falling Spring from the bottom of the hollow after a circuitous crawl over steep and rocky terrain. The Ozark Mountains were the oldest on the continent, eroded to mere stumps, but mountains still. The route used by pioneers had been deemed too hazardous for tourists, so for the museum a new route had been laid out along the ridge. Large obstacles such as hilltops were blasted into submission and the rest smoothed, straightened, and asphalted into a more civilized thoroughfare.

She dawdled there at the end of the driveway, taking shelter for a while in the lee of the massive wooden signboard marking the entrance to the museum. It was not a stop on a larger journey but a destination she knew well and had visited often, just to savor the surprising level of activity in this sheltered little ecosystem. The hiss of new snow blown along windswept pavement, the sigh of the wind in the pines, the muffled conversation of winter-dwelling songbirds holed up in the dense greenery waiting for the storm to break, were all parts of  nature’s own symphony. Chickadees, titmice, two kinds of finches, and a lone cardinal muttered quietly in the trees, while the little slate-backed juncos, the snowbirds, flitted across the woods understory, searching for dislodged seeds and an occasional mummified fruit to fuel their tiny furnaces. “Whatever the state of humans and planets,” they seemed to say, “It’s just another winter day in the Ozarks. Find the good in it, and weather the rest.”

Good advice, she decided. Breathing deeply of the sharp winter air, she bade them all farewell and headed back to finish preparing her meal, ready now to give thanks, if not to the God of her fathers just now, then perhaps to his Mother.

Dinner was satisfying, the turkey and vegetables accompanied by a fresh greenhouse salad and a favorite old movie, a comedy called “Outrageous Fortune,” sent to her by a friend as a “celebrate-your-divorce” present. She lingered over dessert, a thick slice of store-bought cake and ice cream roll drizzled with a homemade cherry topping.  The topping was the work of Helen Walker, the chief cook at the farmstead during the summer harvest demonstrations. The cherries were put up the old way, boiled down with sugar almost to jelling stage, poured into straight-sided glass jars, and sealed with a layer of hot paraffin wax. It was tasty enough to generate thankful thoughts all by itself, she decided, scraping the last dregs off the plate.

When the movie ended she suited up again in her outdoor duds. It was nearing dusk and time for evening chores. She grabbed the plastic bucket of chicken treats, which now held a handful of greenhouse trimmings, a few baked and crushed eggshells, some stale bread, and the seed-laden middle from the acorn squash. The chickens would relish the snack and she needed the exercise after that kind of meal. Besides, it would be good to get the animals bedded down early for the night and see to her own rest and comfort.

She started down the snow-covered path, then hesitated, struck with indecision. What the heck. There was still some daylight left. Why not drive down with the maintenance supplies and worry about retrieving the truck after the snow was cleared? If she loaded the truck really tight, it would keep its footing even in a layer of snow this substantial. And unless she moved the supplies destined for down-slope out of the storeroom, they’d still be in the way as she tried to get the rest of the supplies situated. She headed back for the loading area, fumbling for her keys. Besides, she told herself with a grin, it’s a good excuse for a really beautiful drive. If the truck got stuck, Steven could haul it out later with the tractor.

A half hour later, the small truck groaning under the load but holding tight to the roadway, she drove out the main entrance and headed up the road toward the ridge. A small pine tree that had been bent into the roadway under its load of snow might have been an obstacle, but she was able to nudge it aside with the truck’s front fender and continue on.  The gate at the bottom entrance was another challenge. The frozen lock faced the inside and she, of course, was outside. A few minutes’ fumbling, though, and it was done.

Once inside and at the maintenance shed, with the help of the manual forklift, everything was quickly dispatched. As she’d half expected, the truck didn’t want to go anywhere uphill once it had been emptied, so she parked it next to the smithy and gathered up the carton of leftovers for the chickens. Chores should be a snap.

But they weren’t, and getting the animals tucked away proved less simple than she’d thought. The chickens were nervous and didn’t seem to remember who she was, although she’d fed them just a few hours earlier. She got the same treatment from the bovines and decided it must be the intensity of the snow squall, which was beginning to worsen as the day darkened into an early winter twilight. The cows snorted and lowed in answer to the wind, which was now gusting strongly, and the calves refused to be separated from their mothers. “Oh, good grief, stay in there then,” she finally snarled at them, put down some extra hay, and stalked off to try her luck with the horses. There it was even worse. Every equine on the place was in a panic, starting at shadows, refusing to be touched, and bolting outside every time she tried to close the side doors into the barn. Realizing she could be injured by their increasingly frenzied antics, she threw up her hands in disgust. “Fine,” she snapped. “If you want to stand out there in the snow and shake your butts, just shake away. See if I care. What are you going to do if a bear comes calling and you out here and not safely locked in the barn, huh?”

But as she paused to give the horses time to reflect — an unlikely expectation, given their behavior — she did some reflecting herself and didn’t like what she came up with. A bear showing up in this weather wasn’t all that uncommon. The little black bears once native and now reintroduced weren’t all that aggressive and a horse might be too much to tackle, even if they were hungry. A cougar, now . . . that was another story. She shivered, dashed out into the corral, and began waving her arms. She ran at the horses and yelled until her voice was raw. It worked. The horses were so unsettled at her unexpected behavior, they decided the barn was the safest place after all. They fled wild-eyed into their stalls, still shivering, muttering to one another, and blowing great puffs of steam out their noses.

“Great,” she said to them sarcastically, “now what am I going to do to fend off the bear, or whatever? How ‘bout I climb over the rails and bunk up with you guys?” They had no useful comments for her, so she turned, grabbed up a broken shovel handle for a pretense at protection, and headed out into the snow-filled night. Not for the first time, she wished she had a dog. It wasn’t that they weren’t allowed, but it was hard to find one that fit the breed requirements of the museum — common to the area, in existence in the 1880s, good with cattle and people, and logical for a farm operation. She had made contact with a breeder who said he would research the question and get back with her, but he hadn’t. As the storm thickened and branches creaked and moaned with their loads of snow, she wished he’d already brought her a pup and she had it by her side.

No bears or cougars accosted her on the way up the hill. But just as she came near the end of the climb, she heard a far-off sound, a deep, heavy, groaning boom, coming from the direction of the farmstead but much farther away. It was an eerie noise, one she’d not heard before. A sonic boom at this time of night, she wondered? But she forgot about it as the warm glow of her porch light appeared. It would take more than lions, bears, and sonic booms to keep her from her rest tonight. Still, Rudy’s words tugged at her consciousness. If the end were really near, would anyone see it coming? Would it be swift or torturous? Or just a slow slide into oblivion, she wondered.

She exhaled, then bit off a scream at the sight of a shadowy figure beside her doorway. It was a dog, black with white muzzle and forelegs and a white blaze on its chest – a border collie, from the looks of it – sitting demurely at the edge of the light, smiling and wagging.

“Well, hello there,” Moira said, catching her breath. “You about gave me a heart attack.” The dog stood, wagged vigorously, and put out a paw in welcome.

Moira accepted the greeting. “Howdy, pardner,” she said. “Aren’t you a long way from home?”

She searched the dog’s neck for collar and tags, but there were none. More searching revealed burrs and tangles and skimpy flesh over the ribs. The dog had apparently not been home in some time.

“Oh, boy,” Moira sighed. “Well, you’re not exactly period-correct, are you? We’ll have to find you a home somewhere else. But that doesn’t mean I can’t offer you supper. How do you feel about turkey?” she asked, holding the door open. The dog walked in as though she’d been there a dozen times before, surveyed the room, and lay down on the rug by Moira’s bed.

Moira watched in growing amazement, her recent thoughts replaying in her head.

“Be careful what I wish for,” she muttered, assembling a supper for two. A meal, a bath, and a long comb-out session later, she fell asleep scratching the dog’s head.

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