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Archive for May, 2017

World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Eight: From the Ashes

The lean, dark-haired woman sat atop the bluff, her jeans-clad legs swinging over the edge, listening to the sound of falling water, watching the single blood-red blossom of a fire pink plant nod in the spring breeze. Moira was grateful to see a sign that the nightmare winter was finally done and the heartbreaking spring was showing promise, but there was no joy in her musings.  The flowers came back as though it were just any year. But in the world of humans … would anything familiar ever return, she wondered? Season into season, tragedy after tragedy. She had awakened to memories of her own family and friends, and the admission at last that everyone she held dear might well be gone forever. And whatever their fates, there were miles and miles of chaos between her and any of them. She might never know. Even the idea of contact with the outside had become an abstraction. As if… Her attention was fully captured by the immediacy, the urgency, the immensity of the change, the loss.

Dark thoughts for a beautiful morning, she admonished herself, raising both hands to ruffle her hair and maybe shake her brain loose from this track. The morning’s chill was long gone, as were the mosquitos, who’d taken to the shade. She rolled up the sleeves of her blue chambray work shirt as she looked out across a valley filled with blooming dogwoods and fresh spring greenery. But as always of late, her attention swiftly focused until everything faded except the knoll across from her where the village cemetery lay, expanded so recently by the addition of those four fresh, new graves. It had had to be done; the judgment call had fallen to her, and she had accepted it. She was, in fact, still the person in charge. But Goddess above, when would the death grip of her desperate, murderous act loose its hold on her middle and let her breath again?

Her grim reverie was interrupted by a movement at the edge of her sight. Ten-year-old Joey, the village’s newest and youngest resident, was walking toward her along the bluff’s edge, holding his arms out for balance, agile as a cat. He saw her watching and grinned, pretending just for an instant to lose his balance, then catch himself. The little imp, he never missed a chance to turn ordinary doings into a bit of fun, she thought. Then she grinned in spite of her mood. Thank God for that, for the resilience of youth. He was not yet entirely himself after his recent experiences, but was swiftly healing.

After all, who would say little Joel Pierce had it wrong? Surely he’d suffered as much as anyone in the past months, first losing his mother in one of the deadly windstorms, then seeing his father cut down before him by the so-called “saviors” now residing peacefully on the knoll.

Ellen Wyrick, the other victim of the evil crew, was not his kin at all, although they had bonded in their suffering and captivity. She was just a woman, an herbalist who had been living alone on the edge of Alton when the so-called “true sons” passed through, pillaging and killing. They’d left the town proper alone, skirting the verges to steal food. But they had chanced to stop at her home, had seen that she lived alone, and when they had found her storeroom of tinctures and herbs and her wise woman’s books, they had pronounced her a witch. Redbeard had told them they could take her and do with her as they wished until they tired of her.

That had been a mere week before they’d arrived here, she told Moira. In the interim she’d lived as their slave, preparing their food, assigned the most tedious of camp chores, and suffering their constant attentions, passed around among them nightly. The emancipated prisoners had given up their stories, in small increments with long silences between, soon after she had freed them from their bonds and led them up the hill to her real home, away from the scene of the carnage. She had fed them and let them bathe in comfort and privacy, found them clothes, and pulled couches from the lounge area into her apartment for sleeping, so no one would have to be alone. Then she had told them what she’d done.

Ellen had found the manner of the men’s deaths ironic, and no wonder. They’d died, she said, from the same malady she’d been planning for them as soon as she could put hands on some of the deadly water hemlock root. She’d searched for it daily along the trail, she told Moira. Had she found it, but in insufficient quantity to kill them all, she said, she’d meant to use whatever she found on herself and the boy, who had also suffered terribly at their hands.

Moira did not ask for more details. But the next morning, she’d encouraged them to tour the visitor’s center, telling Ellen while Joey still slept to keep him up the hill, perhaps occupied with Sheba’s pack of puppies, while she attended to the grim scene below. Then she’d hiked down the hill and fired up the small tractor with its digging bucket from the landscaping shed, using it first to dig suitable graves and then to transport the bodies, one by one, to their final rest. She had searched their pockets, written the names of each on a board as makeshift headstone, wrapped them in old horse blankets and planted each in the rocky earth of the cemetery up by the old original settlement. She had taken everything they’d brought, down to their clothes and shoes, and spread it on a table on the farmhouse porch.

When it was done, she had brought the woman and the boy down the hill to the graveyard to let them see and understand they were safe at last from their tormentors. She had recited some spare words for the dead, calling for whatever mercy might be suitable for such, leaving it to better wisdom than hers. Then she had walked among the graves and carefully, meticulously, spat on each one. The boy had been the first to warm to this part of the ritual and made his rounds once, then twice, then at a run, giggling hysterically and spitting and crying until she’d caught him and held him while he sobbed.

Ellen’s rage and fear and humiliation had not been so easily assuaged. She asked which was the grave of the black-bearded one and spat once there, then stood for a while, staring at the freshly-dug earth with haunted eyes, before making her stumbling way back down the hill to the village. They had found her inside the farmhouse kitchen, scrubbing furiously at dishes, stove, table and floor, grinding away at the blood, the poisonous residue, even their footprints in the dust, until all traces of the men were gone. When Moira suggested they might burn sage and cedar as a cleansing ritual, Ellen smiled for the first time. Like the welcoming smile she’d given the men when they arrived, Moira thought, it had looked more like just the baring of teeth.

Since then, she had been unable to persuade Ellen to come up to the Visitors’ Center for more than a few minutes at a time. She had claimed the farmhouse for her own and spent most of her time just sitting on the porch and looking up the hill, seemingly intent on keeping watch on the cemetery, as though to assure herself that the men would stay safely buried. Joey had at first been confused and wouldn’t leave Ellen’s side. So Moira brought their food down to the old house’s kitchen and had gone back to her daily chores.

But as the spring days went by and Moira continued the work of repairing the winter’s damage to the museum’s buildings and grounds, first Joey and then Ellen as well found ways to occupy themselves in helping with the chores, carrying tools, feeding chickens, and hauling water to the farmhouse for household use. While Ellen still struggled and kept her distance from any but the most basic communication, Joey was quicker to regain his good spirits. Ironically, it was his spirit that began to heal them all, sweetening the days with his merry laugh and comic antics. He’d even helped Moira go through the men’s baggage and tack, crying out only once when he found his father’s watch in one of the men’s saddlebags. She’d insisted he keep it and he carried it everywhere, like a legacy, in his pocket. He’d become the village’s timepiece.

Now, as he stood balancing on a rocky crag, he hauled the watch out of his pocket and announced, “It’s eleven-twenty-three. Ellen says it’s time for you to come on down.” He pocketed the watch, hopped the space between two of the bluff’s jagged teeth and reached out to clutch her outstretched hand. “She’s made lunch for us, and she wants us both there. She says she’s tired of all this moping around. She wants you to come help her work up a list of what needs doing around the place, so she can be a better help. I told her I’d rather go on a picnic, but she ran me off and told me to go fetch you instead.” Joey smiled a toothy smile as he hopped up on the rock next to her and wiggled in place, puppy-like, his humor infectious. Moira grabbed his chin and turned his head to the side so he was looking at the valley floor below, where a gingham-clad figure, wicker baskets at the ends of both arms, had spread a cloth on the grass.

“Looks like she heard you, pal,” Moira said. “We might as well go down and see what she’s cooked up.” She stood, shook out the pins-and-needles feeling in her leg from sitting too long on the hard seat, and followed the boy back down the rough trail that sloped eastward toward the dam below the millpond. Once across the dam, she broke into a sprint, whooping joyfully, daring Joey to race her. He won effortlessly. The two dropped to the grass next to where Ellen had laid out the cloth, Moira heaving and puffing and Joey collapsing in giggles.

“Not so fast,” said Ellen with mock sternness, standing between them and the food. “You go wash up first. I’ll not have heathens at my fine table.” She folded her arms and stared them down, even though Moira argued.

“I’m not sure a wash will change that,” she said. But groaning and muttering, she and Joey stood and walked to the millpond where they bathed faces and arms in the cool water. They walked back across the grass, using shirttails and sleeves for towels.

Ellen shook her head, smiling wryly.

“I suppose that’ll have to do,” she said. Then she stepped aside to show them the spread cloth, where waited sandwiches of roast beef on fresh-baked bread, potato salad, baked beans, and a fat plastic container of sweetened iced tea. “Just a little something I threw together,” she said to Moira’s look of astonishment. Then she clasped her hands together, took a deep breath, and continued.

“I don’t know about you, but I need to be over with this. I woke up this morning and decided I could go on like I was doing and give even more of my life to those worthless expletives, or I could try to remember who I was before all this happened. And I thank you for giving me time to quit feeling sorry for myself. I’m ready to start talking about how we’re going to stay alive long enough to grow old here.” The two women looked at one another for a long moment. Their mouths were smiling and their eyes bright with tears. But neither faltered.

Finally Moira nodded. “Yeah. We do seem to have some time on our hands, and there’s plenty to do here” she said, her voice shaking only slightly. “I could use a hand, that’s for sure.”

Ellen extended hers, Moira took it, they shook hands briefly and turned to the food, went to their knees and filled their plates with some of everything.

Watching Ellen pour frosty glasses of tea for all, Moira muttered, “I see you stole my ice.”

“I did,” Ellen responded. “So arrest me. Oh, wups. No sheriff.”She sat demurely on the grass, plate in her lap and skirts spread around her, looking regal but relaxed. She gazed at Moira pointedly. “So tell us about this place,” she said, using her fork to gesture in a vague circle that took in the long valley surrounding them. “Tell us everything.” So they ate and talked, talked and ate, and when the telling was finished, they put away for a time the experiences of the past month, gathered up the picnic debris, and got straight to work.

The next two weeks were a blur of activity, as repairs to the mill’s roof and spillway were completed using lumber stored in the millwright’s shop. Moira located a half-dozen tall house jacks in the back of the same building and got the barn’s feet under it again, a task made easier by the fact that the barn loft was now nearly empty of hay. That was another matter to be dealt with, but not now. She didn’t have the time or the will to assess the fields and the livestock just yet.

She cleaned the manure out of the barn stalls, got the pickup truck started, and used it to haul the loads of fertilizer to the vegetable garden. There Ellen, with Joey’s help, spread it over the beds and wide rows. Then, using the wealth of implements made for the small tractor and formerly used for mowing and landscaping the museum grounds, Moira plowed, disked, harrowed, and made rows. Then she brought forth the seeds for a number of varieties of beans, corn and squash, the survival food combination called “the three sisters” by Native American farmers, and devoted fully half the garden’s space to them and to all the stored and sprouting potatoes she could find.  She finished off with sowings of early greens. These last she’d have to watch carefully because she had none of their seed stored. These salad greens, all of Asian origin, had been sent as seeds by a friend to test their suitability for Ozarks summers, and whatever new seeds these few plants offered, must be collected if they lived. Nothing could be left to chance. Everything was now irreplaceable. Still waiting in the greenhouse were dozens of seed flats containing all the frost-tender plants — tomatoes, peppers, cabbages and more. The cabbages could be planted, but temperatures were still too much in flux for the tenderer shoots.

One morning Moira exclaimed “Oh, my word!” as she marked another day off the calendar in her apartment. Tomorrow was the first day of May, which, she realized, made tonight May’s Eve, or Beltane. Most folks who were only vaguely acquainted with pagan ritual thought of Beltane, if they knew of it at all, as the time when those evil, devil-worshipping pagans held wild sex orgies, frolicking and coupling in the corn to assure a bountiful harvest. Moira laughed at the thought, and she wondered if her newly-acquired family might run screaming down the hollow if they discovered she had turned into every bit the heathen the bearded men had been trying to stamp out.

But she also knew there was more to this particular celebration, at least for her, than an orgiastic rite of spring. It also marked the celebration of Mary, the Mother of God, in all her many aspects. Mary, whose presence in her own mind through all her rituals had kept her at least marginally sane for the months past.

Moira had felt the hand of the Great Mother on her back ever since that first fateful day when her solitude had been stolen so violently. Her life had been changed forever by the act of taking the lives of those men. It was that holy hand that had given her the way, finally, to come to terms with what she had done. She had spent long days alone, walking in the woods with the shadows of Mary’s wilder aspects –Artemis the Hunter and her sister Athena, the Warrior. She had felt them beside her and Mary’s loving hand on her heart until, at last, she had accepted that there had been no other choice left to her. She had done the only thing possible to protect that which was hers to protect. If she had it to do again, she would do exactly the same.

It really was time, then, to move on, and to celebrate the coming days, whatever they might bring. At whatever cost, this new world had already brought her some of the help she’d asked for, in the form of these new and excellent companions. She stepped out of her apartment and strode down the hill to find Ellen and explain to her what she had in mind. She located Ellen rummaging through boxes of fabric in the large square building that would have eventually become the make-believe village’s general store.

“I’m about the world’s worst seamstress,” Ellen said by way of explanation. “But one of these days we’re going to run out of all the clothing that halfway fits from up at the costume room. Fortunately there are overalls even in Joey’s size. I just thought I should do a little inventory, in case I need to whip up a dress or something. You know, in case there’s a dance.” They both laughed at the unlikely notion. Then Moira mentioned Beltane.

To Moira’s surprise, Ellen had needed no explanations. In fact, she said, she’d been wondering whether the subject might come up on its own or she might have to disclose her own inclinations.

“Those fellows weren’t so very far off when they dubbed me a witch, actually, although I’m not sure I’d actually call myself a true Wiccan. I’m more of an open minded Unitarian, I guess you’d say. I am an herbalist, after all, which is associated very closely with the Craft. And before I moved to the country, I hung out with a pretty diverse crowd that came to our church. Belief in a Christian God was sort of optional, that kind of thing. I was raised Unitarian and I believe in a Higher Power, but not the old guy in the white nightgown, as W.C. Fields would say. If you want to read witch into that, help yourself. I was never part of any coven; I’ve just followed my own leanings. But I’ve studied religion and spirituality pretty widely, and I know about Beltane, although I’m amazed that it’s already here. So just what kind of frolic did you have in mind, anyway?” She grinned mischievously, causing Moira to blush furiously.

“I . . . I don’t know . . . I thought . . . maybe we could have a bonfire and maybe sing a little, or do some small ritual piece or something. Hell, I don’t know … I don’t even know that much about it…” she stammered to a halt and Ellen laughed out loud at her discomfiture.

“Me either.  So I suppose we can just do whatever occurs to us,” she said, still laughing. “There’s no one out here to tell us if we get it wrong, after all. Sure. Let’s do it. What can I do to help?”

“If you’ll put together another picnic, Joey and I’ll drag some limbs down from those windfall trees that need cleaning up anyway, and I’ll build a bonfire. If we get that done this morning while it’s cool, then I can see to mending the corral fence so I can let those new horses out of their stalls. Maybe we could plan on supper about six, with the bonfire after. Does that sound okay?”

“Sounds perfect. I’d planned to spend a while on those herb beds today, so I’ll fire up the stove and get a couple of pies in the oven, and put on a pot of beans or something. If you’re going to be up that way, check the warehouse freezer and see if you’ve got anything resembling smoked sausage or kielbasa. I thought I saw that, or something like it, up there the other day. If I had some sausage, I could make us some version of red beans and rice.”

Moira patted her middle lovingly. “All that and pie, too? Be still, my heart.” She blushed again but was saved by Joey’s arrival. He’d been going everywhere at a run, and today was no different.

The tanned sprite bore almost no resemblance to the shy, pale lad who’d arrived short weeks ago. He skidded to a stop between the two women. “Pie?” he exclaimed. “Did I hear pie? Pie’s my favorite. I must have pie. If I don’t have pie, I’ll die.” He clutched at his chest and fell over backward into the grass. The outburst was so outrageous that the two women laughed out loud.

“Whoa, partner. Don’t expire just yet,” Ellen told him. “The pie’s for supper. It’s not made yet. You’ll have to wait.”

He groaned, shook his head, and said, “I cain’t. I cain’t,” then sank back, feigning unconsciousness.

“Well,” Moira said, still laughing. “along with the pie we were going to have a bonfire, that is if I could find me some good help. But it looks like my good help has just gone and gorked on me.”

Joey opened one eye and looked to see if she was telling the truth. She looked him in the eye and nodded, then sighed. “Of course, without any good help, it’ll probably have to be just a little bitty fire.” She sighed again and started to walk away.

“Wait,” Joey said, his voice sounding weak and far away. “Wait. I b’lieve I’m starting to feel some better. Yes!” he shouted, leaping up. “I think I’m gonna make it. So where we puttin’ the fire, anyway?” He slung his arm about Moira’s waist as she grabbed him gently by the hair. The pair went off skipping, out of step. They were both giggling as they disappeared up the path, with Ellen’s warm smile following them.

The sun was but a faint glow in the west and the crescent moon was following it down when Moira uttered a tired sigh and leaned back. She was sitting in one of the Adirondack-style chairs she’d hauled down the hill in the pickup truck from one of the picnic areas. Ellen was beside her in another. The bonfire was mostly coals now, its only light coming from the occasional blazing up of small sticks as Ellen lazily broke them into pieces and tossed them on the embers. Joey was stretched out on a sleeping bag, watching the stars with one of Sheba’s leggy pups snuggled next to him. He was still trying to decide which dog to choose for his own. The constellations, Moira was relieved to see, were still the same familiar shapes. According to the star chart in the office, however, they were no longer occupying exactly the same places in Earth’s sky. Polaris, the North star, was now located noticeably northwest.

That said, it was still a beautiful night, topping off a splendid evening. After a dip in the millpond and a change of clothes, they’d feasted, given thanks, and stumbled through a few campfire songs contributed by Joey, and all had leapt the fire twice and made wishes. So the celebration of Beltane was judged complete. Moira felt totally sated and at peace. She sighed again. It would be easy to just doze off right here and sleep the night away. But they’d wake up dew-covered and sore, she knew. Better to just call it a night. But she had one more small task to see about. She had let Joey tend to evening chores by himself while she moved the chairs and a picnic table down to their new fire circle. Now she needed to make sure he’d not forgotten anything important, without appearing to mistrust him. She stretched and yawned, then stood. “I think I’ll go down to the house and make sure we turned all the lamps out. Anybody want anything?”

Ellen, knowing of her real errand, smiled and shook her head. Joey’s eyes were closed, his arm raised to cover his forehead as if warding off a blow. She hoped his sleep was dreamless. “I’ll be back shortly,” Moira said quietly and headed off down the slope past the farmstead to the village.

Joey’s work was darn near perfect. He’d forgotten to drop the top latch down on the Percherons’ stall, but they seldom tried their gate, content to doze in the familiar space until morning. She had a last look around, then walked out into the road, surveying the facsimile village before heading back up the hill. She paused and her eyes narrowed. Now, that was strange. There seemed to be a light coming from the shop front where the museum had created a montage of a 19th century small town doctor’s office. She watched in silence. The light moved. Someone was inside. Moira slipped her service piece, a nine millimeter Ruger pistol that she’d carried every day since the arrival of the militia men, out of its holster and levered a round into the chamber. Holding the gun pointing skyward, her index finger lying alongside the barrel, she stepped silently down the grassy lane, stopping to examine every shadow along the museum’s “Main Street.” The set of structures, made to look like the heart of a small village from the 1880s, had still been under construction when the calamity occurred, but several cubicles were already at least partly furnished. She’d been there just the previous day, examining the cobbler’s shop to see if the tools and materials existed to make shoes, or at least moccasins, for Joey’s rapidly growing feet. Now she avoided the board sidewalks and padded silently down the dirt street until she could see where the light was coming from.

“Whuff-hm-hm-hm,” some unidentifiable thing spoke just in front of her.

She started violently, then took a deep breath as she made out the silhouette of a horse standing quietly in the shadow. She stepped closer and made out the form of a saddle, backed by a bedroll and well-filled saddlebags. She was feeling to see if there was a rifle in the boot of the saddle when a hand reached out of the darkness and yanked the gun out of her hand. She whirled, yelling, and struck out with her foot, connecting  with someone’s leg. Better to die fighting than give up, she thought, and threw herself at the shadowy figure. Off balance, they both fell, with Moira on top. She swung and connected again with a face, then a hand grabbed her right arm and held it. She punched with her left and the man yelled an oath. Finally he got hold of her left forearm. She tried to knee him but he rolled to the side, still holding her arms. He made her stand.

“Let go of me, you sonofabitch!” she shouted, fury driving her wild.

“Wait a minute, dammit. Just wait a minute. I’m not trying to hurt you, goddammit. I’m just trying to keep you from killing me. Just stop it for a minute, will you?” She held still.

He took a couple of deep breaths, and let her go. She punched him in the face.

“Shit! All right, goddammit. You asked for it.” The man grabbed her right arm and whirled her around so she was facing away from him, then wrapped both arms around her and lifted her until her feet were no longer touching the floor. “Now will you just quit it and listen to me?” he said.

Just then a light flashed into their eyes and they heard the “snick” of a firearm being cocked. The voice that spoke was Ellen’s but it was colder than Moira had ever heard it.

“You’re the one that better quit it, mister. Put her down and get your hands in the air.”

Moira could feel the man exhale before setting her down gently. She stepped away and turned to look. He was tall, broad-shouldered and tanned, with cocoa-colored hair to his shoulders and green eyes. He looked to be somewhere in his late 30s.  His worn, sweat-stained Stetson hat lay at his feet, below a denim shirt and jeans and high-top laced moccasins. He was beardless, but sported an unwaxed handlebar mustache that covered his upper lip and hung down longer at its ends. He managed a wry grin and shrugged as he spoke.

“I’m damned if I know what I’ve done to get you all so upset. But I’m certainly willing to apologize.”

“What do you call sneaking around at night and assaulting people?” Moira snarled.

“Hey, I wasn’t sneaking around at all. I thought I was by myself down here and I was looking at the doctoring tools to see if there was anything I could use. I didn’t know there was anybody else around. I ain’t seen anybody at all in more than a week.”

“How about jumping someone and taking their gun away,” Moira said, unconvinced.

“Now, ma’am, I don’t mean to offend anybody, but when someone is slipping up on me with a weapon of destruction in their hand, it’s my policy to remove the weapon before anyone gets hurt, although . . . ” He paused and rubbed at the side of his face where Moira had punched him. “It didn’t quite work out the way I planned it.” He sighed and raised his hand to join the other, still held high over his head. “Look. I’m just passing through this valley on my way down to see what’s left of this country. My name’s Glen Truett. My home, or what’s left of it, is up on the Jack’s Fork over toward Winona. I decided while the quakes were still going on that as soon as it got decent weather I’d get out and see what was left, find out who had made it tout alive, and see if I could help get things – anything – back on track again. I’ve not found much until now,” he said, his eyes bleak with the memory of things he was not talking about.

Moira, moved finally by his look of despair, looked at Ellen, who shrugged and lowered her gun but remained watchful.

“So,” Ellen said. “So, who are you? What are you about? What’s your take on all this? Your credo? You some damn militia looter or somethin’?

“What?” He had lowered his hands to chest level, but the question startled him, and he stopped, his face a grimace of disbelief. “What are you talking about?”

“What do you believe in? You got a religion? You a heathen? You think God did all this? You think you’re the new king of the world? What? What do you call holy?” Ellen persisted. She had to know.

The man shrugged. “Life, I guess. Nature. Gaia, the spirit of the earth. I don’t know. I been living out in the woods on my own for a long time, tryin’ to get away from a lot of that stuff. I’m part Osage by blood, so I respect the Native ways. And I read a lot of stuff up there in my cabin, waiting for everything to settle down, trying not to go nuts. But I don’t hold with the fundamentalists. I just never could get those notions into my head. It all sounded made up. And made up by folks who didn’t know much. My daddy decided he was a born-again Baptist when he quit drinking, and that new religion of his caused us just as much heartache as the drink. So I couldn’t do that. Couldn’t go there.”

His eyes questioned Ellen, wondering if he’d said what she needed to know. She returned the look for several heartbeats. Finally, she heaved a sigh and looked across at Moira, who only shrugged. It was Ellen who finally decided.

“Well, Glen, you want some coffee?”

He grinned, then started to laugh without any sound, and the change in his face was remarkable. “More than anything in this world, ma’am,” he said.

The two women led the way up the path toward the farmhouse and met Joey on the path. He had brought a flashlight and guided them, sliding into step with the stranger once they had been introduced and Joey was brought up to date on the circumstances of Glen’s arrival.

“How’d you know Moira was trying to slip up on you?” Joey asked.

“Willy, my horse. He told me,” Glen answered.

“Really?”

“Swear to Goodness.” The horse, walking behind without having to be led, whickered softly, and Glen interpreted with a chuckle. “Now he wants to know if you’ve got an extra bag of oats handy. Later, Willy, after I’ve had my coffee. Okay, partner?” The horse snorted, and Joey’s eyes widened as they walked behind the women up the path.

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Seven: Unalterable Acts

Scratched arms, torn clothing, and a stitch in her side accompanied her as she arrived back at the museum grounds, running all the way. And with every step Moira had been thinking feverishly, examining her options. There was no knowing how much time she had. They would travel more than a mile compared to her scant few hundred yards, and they had been headed toward the river to water their horses when she’d seen them last. But they were coming. Worse. They were coming to loot the museum, to plunder its precious cache of tools and seeds. It could mean the end of things, civilization’s last hopes gone to the hands of craven marauders, terrorists, and so soon. No! She was not, by God, going to let that happen.

As she ran, dodging black haw and greenbriar, wading headlong through vines and brambles, her momentum ripped a path through the tangled understory  filling the steep hollow which at its worst was still the most direct way to the museum. She had already deduced that any kind of frontal assault would be futile. Rifles or shotgun were out – she could not attack them from hiding. That left only her service piece, a .9mm Ruger that was accurate at short range but totally impossible to conceal, and a small .25 caliber pistol, an off-brand “Saturday night Special” inherited from her father, that could fit in her pocket but was accurate about to the length of her arm, give or take. These “militia men” had assault weapons.

Militia men they were, she was sure of it. They had to have come from somewhere within horseback range, and from their language they sounded like the renegade, so-called white supremacists who had gained a reputation in the region as bullies prone to violence. But their compound was far to the west, with miles of rough country between. To her dismay, they had not only survived but had come here with a purpose. Evidently their leaders had seen the chaos created during the past winter as their chance to lay claim to all that was left. Their conversation made it clear they had not come to ask for the seeds but to take them, as they had taken their hostages. Who knew what else they might have already done. And their head man was talking of moving in and staying.

“Over my dead body,” she snarled between clenched teeth, realizing it might be exactly that.

But counting on firepower was out. She would have to stop them another way. And to do that, she had to let them get in close, and convince them she was unaware of their intent – or her peril. How could she do that? Perhaps she should be crazy. That shouldn’t be too damned difficult to pull off.

Her grin was a rictus of pain and defiance as she stumbled in the back door of the center and threw herself at the warehouse doors, which swung open wide and banged against the walls as she passed. She heard Sheba bark from behind her apartment door but didn’t dare respond. Sheba would try to protect her and that would just get herself shot. This would have to be a solo job.

She hesitated, seeing the stacks of boxes, the filled shelves, the well-stocked tool room. If they saw what was here, she was doomed. Stumbling again, gasping for breath, she crossed the warehouse and yanked open the dressing room door. About halfway down was her locker, where she kept the costumes she used to perform in during living-history re-enactments. She threw open its door and put out a hand to steady herself and stop her racing mind and adrenaline-filled muscles. Then off went the uniform shirt and jeans, stopping to pry off her hiking boots. On over the head went petticoats and gingham shirtwaist dress. Tug them down. Tie her hair back with a ribbon. Throw an apron over all, towel her face dry and check the mirror. Transformed, sort of. But for the sweat and scratches, she looked like any old-time farm wife. Could they be persuaded to think she’d just wandered in here and found the place, just another refugee? She’d play her crazy act to the hilt, and maybe they’d let her live. But staying alive wasn’t the issue. The issue was stopping them. And stopped is what they must be. No matter what.

She sat down on the long bench against the wall and pulled her boots back on, thinking furiously. There must be a way.

She could make them a meal and dose them with something. They’d be out long enough that she could tie them up. She was already beginning to smile as her breath suddenly went out in an explosive sigh and she slumped against the wall, grasping the flaw in that plan and any like it. Even tied, they were lethal. They would never be anything else. Not so long as they lived. She could disarm them, but she could not make them harmless. She certainly couldn’t call the sheriff.

She closed her eyes, trying to clear her thoughts, to see if she was missing something. No. They could not be made harmless. And there was no law to appeal to. There was just her. This was the place she had been given to protect, and she was the law. There was no help for it. She was simply going to have to kill them, or die trying.

Moira sat in silence for a long minute. If there were a God in heaven, she was facing a very long eternity. On the other hand, what God would turn these beasts loose on the struggling remnants of civilization? The world they were trying to build was not one where she, or any woman or child or civilized man, could ever live safely.

“No,” she said aloud, shaking her head. There was no choice, or, if there had been, she had already made it. So all that remained were the means. Firepower was not the answer. It would have to be sabotage. And she thought the means for that might be found at the millpond, or, barring that, at the shed where the garden pesticides were stored. Ironic that she’d argued against their use due to the potential of bringing harm to humans. At last resort, they might do exactly that.

There was no more time to waste. She heaved herself upright and was off again at a trot. First stop was the walk-in freezer, where she helped herself to a number of packaged foods pre-cooked for the demonstration kitchen. Into a basket went a round of cornbread, a large portion of bean and beef stew that would fit tidily into an iron Dutch oven, and some stewed tomatoes with chopped onions and brown bread broken up and stirred into them. From a storage bin alongside went a handful of small sweet potatoes to bury in the ashes of the cook fire she would build in the wood cook stove. It was all just good, simple, wintered-over springtime fare of the kind they’d expect. Nothing suspicious.

She left the basket by the back door and went back through the public area to her office, pulled open a bottom desk drawer, and snatched the small pistol from its hiding place, along with a box of shells. At close quarters, or as a last-ditch gambit, it might make the difference, she thought, sliding a bullet into each chamber of the little revolver and checking to make sure the safety was on. She tucked the pistol and a handful of extra shells into the deep side pocket of her dress where it would be covered by the apron, and went back to the warehouse one more time for a can of coffee – and a butcher knife. Then back to the door she went, snatched up the basket, and trotted off down the hill, her gait uneven but determined.

By the millpond she set the basket down again and shielded her eyes from the sun while she peered along the far verges of the water. It should be on the far side, just next to the dam. She spotted it, a withered shrub at winter’s end. but it was not the innocent it appeared. She’d intended to have the hazardous perennial dug out last fall, but the first frost had stopped her before she got someone assigned to the task. The ornamental was dangerous to let thrive adjacent to public areas, although it made an attractive addition to the bluff-side greenery. The problem was, it shouldn’t be here at all. It wasn’t indigenous, for one thing. Some long-ago resident of the hollow had evidently brought the plant in as an ornamental and had put it there at the far edge of the dam so it might escape a killing frost. Of larger concern, it was deadly poisonous.

She held out both hands to balance herself as she crossed the narrow catwalk across the spillway and hopped to the ground on the far side. A few more steps and she was standing before the plant she sought. Only its first tiny leaves were showing, not sufficient for her intended use. But the dried leaves were lethal as well. She rudely chopped at the leafy branches with the butcher knife until she’d knocked the leaves down, then scooped up a hefty measure of last year’s leafy growth, along with several clusters of withered berries. She fingered the leaf shoots. The legendary Oleander, an ancient and treacherous beauty that was deadly to most animals as well as humans. And if the literature was correct, it acted quickly. If she could just get a portion of it down their gullets without poisoning their prisoners, all well and good. She thought how that might be done and smiled a smile that did not reach her cold eyes. She’d make a tea. She wrapped the leaves, berries, and twigs in a cloth, retraced her steps across the dam, and headed for the farmhouse at a run.

The cornbread was in the oven, the potatoes were in the ashes, the pot of chopped leaves and stems was steaming on a back burner next to the bubbling stew and she was replenishing the fire in the wood range with split oak faggots when she heard the whoops and shouts of the men. They must have realized they’d found the museum’s lower gate. “Thanks for the warning, fellas,” she whispered.

Moira paused on the porch and inhaled a great gout of air, twice, then composed herself into the pitiful creature she wanted them to see. Gathering the front of apron and dress in her hands to make running easier, she set off for the gate, which she’d left closed but not locked. Running down the hill, she saw them before they saw her and was almost upon them when she gave a shriek of feigned joy.

“Ayee. Praise God. Thank you, Jesus. Is it you? Is it really my Savior come to take me home? Ah, sweet Jesus, you’ve come for me at last,” she babbled as she ran toward them.

Startled at the sound as well as the sight of her wildly-waving skirts, the horses shied as she’d hoped they might, jostling their riders away from their weapons, making them concentrate instead on keeping hold of their reins and staying upright. She kept wailing and chattering, waving her hands in the air, until the redbearded man, standing in the saddle and wrestling with his dancing palomino, finally shouted her down.

“Good Christ, woman! Shut your mouth. You’re driving the horses crazy. Shut up!” he called this last over his shoulder as his mount circled and reared again.

Moira stopped waving and lowered her hands to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just got so excited. It’s been so long since I’ve seen anyone. I’m sorry,” she said, hiding her voice behind her hands but continuing to babble. As the palomino turned to face her again, the red-bearded man swung down off his horse. But before he could stop her, she lunged headlong into his arms. Holding him tightly around the waist, she sobbed as though her heart would break. But her tearless eyes peered beneath his arm as she sobbed and met the eyes of the bound woman bringing up the rear of the procession. She leaned, turning Redbeard until his body blocked her from view of the other men but not from the female captive. As the woman came near enough that she could see the horror and fear in her eyes, Moira shifted her head slightly to meet the woman’s gaze head-on and, still clinging tightly to Redbeard, lifted her face so the woman could see her mouthed words. Please, Mother of God, let her understand me, she prayed silently, while her lips formed the words the woman had to hear.

“I know. I know. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.” Then she had to stop because the gray-bearded man drove his horse between, keeping the women from meeting. But before he did, she saw the woman’s chest rise with a sudden intake of air and her eyes widen, lit with hope. It was the best she could do for now.

Moira bowed her head and brought one hand to her face, hiding her eyes as Redbeard disengaged himself. She drew a rag from her apron pocket and blew her nose noisily before wiping her dry eyes. Then she smiled up at him, hoping he saw gratitude in her face instead of just her bared teeth. “Tell me. Tell me where you’ve come from. How did you find me? Are you here to stay? Will you take me with you when you go? Ah, just talk to me, man. Let me hear voices other than my own.”

The man threw back his head and laughed. “I will, if you’ll stop your yellin’ and prayin’ and let me get a word in. I take it you’re a good Christian woman. Is that so?”

“God-fearing and baptized right in yon river there,” she said, struggling to remember how the litany went. She’d do better to claim a fundamentalist background than her own liberal Methodist one, but she wasn’t sure she could keep it all straight.

“Thank you, Jesus, for bringing these wonderful men to my rescue,” she said. She grabbed his arms again and shook them. “You’re the answer to my every prayer. You truly are. But, oh, mercy, I am forgetting my manners,” she said, putting her hands to her face again. “Have y’ all had your supper yet? I’ve got some stew on the fire, just up the hill. Oh, my goodness. Yes. The stew. I’ll need to get back to it before it burns,” she said, turning to go.

His hand shot out and seized her arm in a bruising grip. “Just hold on a minute, missy,” his voice hissed, and for a moment she thought he’d seen through her disguise. But his concern was more for himself. “You sure you’re all alone here?” he asked. “You’re the only one about?”

“Why, of course,” she said, trying not to fight his grip. “I’ve been here a month or more, scared to death the whole time.

“My farm’s just down river, you see, and when the food ran out, and Orville never come back from town . . . ,” she said, letting her fear fuel the catch in her voice. “I had to go somewhere, and I knew they kept food up here. But when I got here, they was all gone. I thought I was the only one left anywhere . . . ”  Her voice broke again as she spoke the truth for the first time, and now there were real tears shining from her eyes.

“Well, you’re not. In fact, you’re one lucky woman. We’re all of us among God’s Chosen. All four of us. You’re among your own again.” She made what she hoped was a joyful exclamation of surprise as the red-bearded man smiled and raised his arm to introduce his three male companions, still mounted, who stared down at her. Beyond them, the woman sat, still tied, and the boy had come forward to cling to her stirrup.

“What’s the matter with them two,” she asked, forcing contempt into her voice. “Did they steal somethin’?”

“Well, she’s a witch. And the boy won’t mind anybody. He’s incorrigible. We’re taking them in to be judged.”

“Witches!” she said and spat on the ground, as in her head she begged forgiveness. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they had something to do with the cause of all this, if you ask me.”

“I know just what you mean, Sister. Now what’s this I hear about supper? We’ve traveled a long road today.”

“Yes. Mercy, I was wondering why I made so much stew. I thought I was going to have some extra for tomorrow. But, land sakes, I’ve got just about enough to go around.” She glanced hatefully toward the woman and boy. “Don’t know if I’ve got anything fit for them, though. They don’t deserve my good stew. Maybe I can boil up some mush or something for them. Or maybe there’ll be an extra tater or two. I’ll see what I can do.” She turned, gathered her apron and skirt in her hand, and beckoned the men to follow. As they neared the farmhouse, she stopped and pointed toward the barn.

“You gentlemen should find hay and feed and stalls for your horses in there,” she said. “Make the animals comfortable, while I see about dishing up some supper.”

The men dismounted and the black-bearded one walked back to help the woman roughly off her horse. “You can leave them in the barn, too, if you like, and I’ll take something out to them later.” She wanted to get the two prisoners out of the way and have some time to herself to check out her hastily-ordered kitchen.

She got only half her wish. The prisoners were led to the shade outside the barn and made to sit, then their feet were tied and their hands bound behind them. But Redbeard didn’t want her to go off by herself. Despite his friendly manner, he didn’t trust her. Well and good. He shouldn’t. He should be deathly afraid of her, and perhaps somewhere in himself he sensed it. But he wouldn’t, Goddess willing, see his peril as coming from something as innocent as homemade stew.

He watched, arms folded and leaning against the doorway as she set five bowls down from the shelf. She filled one with stew, then stopped, with an exclamation.

“Land sakes, I forgot the spicebush,” she said. She used the lid of the small pot to strain out the solids and poured the poisonous brew into the stewpot as the other three men tramped in from outside and took seats at the kitchen table. She dished up the remaining four bowls of stew, sliced and buttered wedges of cornbread, and dipped up smaller bowls of the breaded tomatoes. But when she began laying place settings, Redbeard leaned forward. “Ain’t you going to eat with us?”

Damn! She put down the last of the knives and walked over to him, placing her hand in the middle of his chest. “I’ll have a bite in a little bit. I’ve got a bowl set aside. But let me get you all served first. You’ve been traveling all day. And, well . . . it’s been such a long time since I’ve served a man . . . I’d like to just enjoy it for a while, if I might.” She smiled what she hoped was a seductive smile and patted his chest, then, feeling the cushion of hair under his shirt, reached a forefinger between his buttons and said, “My, my. Such a furry bear you are.”

Redbeard slid a hand around her waist and drew her to him. “You like furry bears, do you?”

She didn’t have to feign her sudden shortness of breath, only the reason for it. “I do, ever so much,” she said, her voice trembling. “Especially red ones.” Then, as he leaned toward her, reaching to a kiss, she pushed him away gently. “But there’s plenty of time for us to get . . . acquainted, after everyone’s had some supper and gets settled in for the night.” She fluttered her eyes at him. You get to your dinner and I’ll make us all some coffee.” She barely had time to turn her face away from his leering grin before a spasm of disgust shook her. Never mind, she told her body as her teeth clenched in a snarl. Whatever gets the job done. Just do it.

Moira turned back and surveyed the men filling the small farmhouse kitchen, now seated around the laden rough-hewn table. The gray-bearded man was facing Redbeard, and Blackbeard was across from No-beard. Perfect. She urged them to set to. “”Dig in before it gets cold. I’ll have your coffee for you in just . . .” her words ended in a sudden gasp as Blackbeard grasped her buttock in his hand. But before she could speak, Redbeard snarled a curse and Blackbeard’s hand dropped to his side.

“Leave off, Billy. Leave ’er go. Let her see to her cookin’.”

“Well, Gol, what’s with you, John? She yours or something?” There was a long silence, punctuated finally by the black-bearded Billy. “Sorry, ma’am.”

“No matter,” she said. “I understand. You’ve all been away from your women a long time. Just don’t be so . . . rough. All right?”

“Yes’um,” Billy said, abashed. Then there was silence, punctuated only by the scraping of spoons against bowls. Finally, Redbeard said again, “Ain’t you gonna eat?” and she nodded, reaching to pull the untainted bowl toward her.

“You all had enough? There’s plenty here,” she said, looking around the room, bowl in one hand and spoon in the other, trying to make her voice sound friendly, as they all shook their heads that they had. She nodded again and turned toward the stove. “Coffee’ll be ready in a minute.”

A chair scraped back and she turned, seeing Redbeard rise. “I’m going out for a smoke. I’ll check the prisoners while I’m out,” he said and stepped out onto the porch and down the steps into the yard, where the light was beginning to fade. Moira took her bowl and spoon to a small table by the window, where she could observe the men while pretending to season her stew from a crockery tub. Of the three remaining men, two were still cleaning their plates while Graybeard slowly sat back from the table, a pipe in one hand and a small cloth pouch in the other.

Suddenly Davy, the beardless one, coughed, then made a strangling sound. “God,” he said, “I feel sick.” He tried to stand but retched suddenly and bent forward. “Oh, God,” he cried again. “Mama?” and fell forward, sprawling across the table.

“What the hell?” Graybeard said, staring in astonishment and clutching his pipe and pouch. He looked at Moira, then at Blackbeard, who was staring at the top of Davy’s head, which had landed in the bowl of stewed tomatoes and looked bloody. Suddenly Blackbeard’s eyes widened and he gathered himself as if to stand. Instead he roared in pain, reaching toward Moira with outstretched arms and fists that clenched and unclenched. His teeth snapped shut and he snarled, trying again to rise. Somewhere halfway through the movement he stopped, and, like a toy winding down, sank slowly back into his chair, head arching backward until it, and he, could go no farther. Then he was still.

“Youuu . . . you bitch! You – you’ve poisoned us,” Graybeard’s voice rasped as pipe and pouch hit the floor. He was groping for his gun when his breath caught in his throat. He struggled for air, but when his breath came out at last, in a rasping groan, his head fell forward and he did not breathe again.

Moira stood, transfixed at the grisly scene before her, but her head snapped up as heavy footfalls crossed the porch. Her breath came out in an explosive rush as the red-bearded man strode through the doorway and stopped, incredulity in his face and the burnished steel of an assault rifle in his hand. They stared across at each other, then Moira looked away, to the table, where his bowl of stew sat, untouched.

She closed her eyes and sighed, defeat evident in the sag of her shoulders.

“I knew there was something about you that wasn’t right,” Redbeard said. “You were too glad to see us. And you weren’t afraid. But why? Why…this?” he asked, gesturing with the rifle at his fallen comrades.

“I saw you coming. You were treating that woman and child like cattle. And you were going to steal the seeds. I couldn’t let that happen. They’ll be needed if people are to survive.”

“But, Good Christ, woman! The seeds were ours by right. We’re the Chosen. Those seeds belong to us. We’re the ones meant to rule the world to come.”

His gun was hanging in his right hand as he raised his left toward the heavens. He was shaking his head, as if any view of the world to come other than his were inconceivable.  It was now or never. But she couldn’t let it end without answering him.

“No,” she said, raising her left hand, making a fist except for the straightened index and pinky fingers, which made the sign of horns, for rejection, for sending evil back upon itself. “It will not be as you say” She spit the words out deliberately. “Not so long as I can do or say otherwise. The world of take and wreck and ruin is dead. Those who rule this world must earn it.” And while the red-bearded man stared at the sign in her hand, confused, she put her other hand in her dress pocket, raised the nose of the pistol that she hoped would shoot true, flicked off the safety with her thumb, and pulled the trigger. His head jerked only a little, as if startled, and he gazed at her in puzzlement as a flower blossomed in his forehead. She’d shot high, but it would do. She stood calmly, meeting his gaze until she saw the light go out of his eyes and his knees begin to buckle. By the time he hit the floor, she was headed out the door, running toward the barn where the prisoners waited.

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Six: The Devil in the Details

Moira was sprawled atop a bluff in the sunlight, gathering greens. As the weather warmed and the awful winds continued to subside, there was occasionally a sunny day. She meant to make the most of this one. She was foraging for early wild edibles, the kind from which the traditional Ozarks “spring tonic” was made. High above the river bottom beyond the park, she had bet the herbs would take advantage of every second of sunlight, and she was right. She’d left Sheba behind along with her band of rowdy half-grown pups, as the whole pack was too hard to manage and still get anything done. They so loved a romp, and she’d locked them all outside early this morning while she finished greenhouse chores. Those had to be meticulously done, as she’d replaced the beds of overgrown lettuce with flats of newly seeded garden vegetables that she hoped to transplant soon to the farmstead garden down the hill. The lettuces were now being enjoyed by the few surviving chickens and the four-legged livestock. But she wanted something fresh for herself.

She was stretched almost to her full length reaching to seize a prize, a clump of tender fiddleheads, the early shoots of the bracken fern. She hooked her foot around a small sapling to keep from going over the edge. She’d already collected salad makings of rocket and sheepshire. These tender but sturdy shoots that nestled in a sheltered, sun-washed pocket in the rocks would add bulk as well as vitamins to her nutrient-starved diet. Greenhouse fare had kept her going but it was stronger medicine she was after now. She would add the coiled shoots to another belt pack that already contained violets in leaf and flower and a bag of redbud blossoms.

She was humming to herself but stopped when she thought she heard a noise, a metered clopping sound almost like hoof beats coming from far up the old road. The morning mist still hung over the dirt track that ran along the base of the bluff and on toward the lower museum gate. Lightly traveled in previous years and untraveled by humans at all since the first quake, the track was now weed-grown and dim, the few ruts marked by standing water from last night’s rain. Probably another stray horse looking for a herd to join, she thought. She’d been taking in strays of all kinds in the past months, all of them the four-legged kind except for a couple of chickens.

Here next to the river the awful winds of the past winter had not created so much havoc; fewer trees were down, and the road was still passable for as far as she could see. She’d not come by road or by horseback but had hiked up and over the ridge separating Pigeon Hollow, out of which Falling Spring flowed, from the Eleven Point River valley and the stream into which the spring’s waters emptied. The old-timers’ spring tonic of wild potherbs to augment a diet of canned goods and lettuce past its prime had provided the excuse for some brisk exercise and a welcome change of scene.

Perhaps next week, if the good weather held, she might venture out this way in her truck to see if she could reach a main road. She was not hopeful. For more than three months the radio and TV had remained silent, and nothing but dead air and static had answered her calls on Steven’s ham-radio set. Steven had not returned to the museum as he’d promised, nor had anyone else appeared. She wondered if anyone within traveling distance was still alive. If the whole ham radio operator network was out, it could only mean that the disaster was as widespread as she feared and of catastrophic proportions. She knew that base stations had to be pointed in the right direction to pick up another base station’s signal. But she should be picking up something off satellite, unless . . . unless the planet had actually moved from the plane of the ecliptic, had somehow rolled partway over, or done something else equally unimaginable.

With one of the tiny computers she’d found a set of instructions to calibrate the unit to find a satellite, but that would only give her a library, not a source of current events, so she hadn’t tried it. More sorting and unpacking had revealed more parts of Rudy’s “stash,” some still mysterious and some just humorous. A small, square package had poured forth dozens of the storage units, half flash cards and half jump drives, some empty and others full of unknown information. One large tube had contained a mile or more of mirror-finish mylar film. Another, fortunately opened early in the search, revealed, of all things, two seedling coffee trees. They must have thought they were stocking the Ark, she thought with a grim chuckle.

“They should have thought to send two of me,” she muttered.

She still had no way of knowing what was happening in the world outside. She supposed if the world were ending, more evidence would appear soon. But what she’d seen so far wasn’t all that horrific. True, there had been those weeks of black, roiling clouds, and that terrible wind that seemed to go on forever, and there was a haze in the sky night and day now. Moreover the April weather didn’t seem quite as warm as April should be. But the sun was out, and things were up and growing. So hope had not entirely faded.

On the other hand, she was in the middle of a continent, well-protected from what had been predicted as the worst of possibilities. And if the damage and destruction was as bad and as widespread as she imagined from those last days of television reception, then rescue could still be weeks or even months away.  Her thoughts roamed far afield as she snapped off the fiddleheads and stuffed them in her pouch,

She heard the measured clopping sound again, but the wind came up and it went away. She shook her head. Now it sounded more like a couple of horses. Or cows. She wouldn’t be surprised. As the winds had calmed, stray domestic animals had begun wandering in from who knows where, seeking herd or master. At first she had hoped some human would also come wandering in – perhaps a Forest Service worker or game warden, even a neighboring farmer in search of his cows. But so far it hadn’t happened. She continued to put out hay for the cows and horses and now also for an old ewe with her pair of lambs who had taken up residence. She still threw a little corn to the chickens, who wandered at will. The cattle herd had actually increased to about a dozen with the assortment of beef and dairy cows who’d come wandering in and settled with her loyal brood, and she was up to about a dozen horses. She had seen no sign of the pigs.

Sometime this spring, if the weather held, she would have to begin putting in crops, not just to feed herself but to keep the livestock through the winter to come. Fortunately, the grass hay from the museum-owned fields along the river had been put up in large round bales wrapped in plastic and stored out of sight of the museum’s public areas, so she would have a cushion against dry weather and her inexperience. She rejoiced every day that among her many purchases last autumn had been fresh stocks of grains and grass seed for the seed vaults. On her mind at the time had been the potential need for extra against drought, bad weather, or other potential causes of crop failure. Though she hadn’t at the time known a cataclysm was coming, she’d paid particular attention to laying in new varieties of open-pollinated heirloom vegetable seed for the kitchen garden and traditional grasses, corns, and legumes for the fields.

As she waited for the expected cows to show themselves, she thought it unfortunate none of the animals in her care had opposable thumbs, for she could use the help. In a sheltered spot outside the greenhouse, more varieties of fruit trees delivered late last fall still awaited transplanting to their new homes around the compound – a daunting task for one woman, even if it were the only work to be done. But it was difficult to even imagine the effort it might take to provide food for the entire menagerie — it seemed overwhelming, even with the tools at hand, including horse-drawn rakes, plows, and harrows, and the horses to pull them. In truth, there was only one team really trained to pull, and another halfway there. Most of the rest were an unknown quantity. If only she had a few more pairs of hands, she thought, the work would seem less impossible. Even the gathering of wild and domestic herbs for food and medicine sometimes seemed futile. But she had no one else yet to rely on, and she must do everything she could to assure her own survival.

In these past months, left too long alone with her thoughts, she had come to see the importance of the resources in her care in a different light. She’d come to understand just how critical they might be for humans who intended to survive into the future. Nowhere within several hundred miles existed such seed stocks. The  Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, if they survived, would be one possible source, although their stores would have been managed with more attention to variety than to quantity. And there was the Seed Savers project in Iowa. Closer by, there had been a little place in Brixey, over in Ozark County. If they had survived.

Without open-pollinated seeds, even if people survived the obvious ravages of climate chaos, they would not be able to grow anything approaching an adequate supply of food beyond one or two seasons. When hybrid varieties began to revert to their parent varieties, production of edible foods would diminish dramatically. Of course, not all hybrids reverted and some isolated organic or traditional farmers here and there would have been saving their own favorite vegetables and grains.

But how many of them had survived? And how many mouths could they feed while trying to grow out supplies of extra seed for themselves and others? Given the possibility that no more than a few were still around, she observed, the whole question might be moot. Either way, it was just too soon to tell. And without information coming from beyond this valley, she might not know for a long time. She sat up and pulled herself back from the edge, her thoughts focused too much on the larger situation to pay attention to fiddleheads or to keeping her balance on this high ledge.

She heaved a great sigh and stretched out on her side, facing the roadway. Better to gather herbs, catch a few fish, do what she could each day, and let the Great Mother see to the rest. No doubt She had enough on Her hands these days seeing to Her many creatures and Her own dear self without attending to the worries of one stray, carping daughter whose needs for food and shelter were so amply met. Besides, this lonely daughter had been down this particular road too many times already. She placed her palm flat to the earth, in a spontaneous gesture of reverent thanks for the recently calmer days, and started packing up her bounty, getting ready for the long hike home.

The hoof-beat sounds continued to draw nearer. She peered in the direction of the sound but couldn’t see any movement. Cows? No. Horses. Definitely horses, and several of them. It was probably the band of young Morgans she’d released a few months back. Half-wild, they had come and gone frequently from the farm compound in past weeks, torn between exploring and seeking a ready supper. Lately they had been accompanied by another young equine, a slim-withered orphaned horse colt who loped along behind the sturdy Morgans, but with a distinctive gait, possibly a  Foxtrotter.

She stood up to see better. Suddenly her hand flew to her mouth and she uttered a strangled cry. It was not only hoof beats she was hearing, she realized. She would almost swear she heard voices, as well. She drew a breath, preparing to shout. But then, almost against her will, her hand moved to cover her mouth tightly, stifling any call she might have made. She had no idea who was coming, she told herself fiercely, as her mind warred with itself. It could be salvation; it could be scoundrels. Better to find out, she decided, before whoever it was spotted her. She lowered her body into a crouch and moved along the bluff’s edge to where there was a gap in the greenery and she could see the roadway clearly for some distance without being seen.

At first she was so relieved she wanted to cry. The mounted figure that appeared round the bend in the road, except for his curly red beard, was dressed military-style, outfitted in what appeared to be full desert camo, with a carbine slung over his shoulder. Instead of military gear for his sturdy palomino horse, however, the horse bore a standard Western saddle, complete with lariat, saddlebags, and a large bedroll. Of course, rescuers would use whatever was available, she reasoned. But still she did not reveal herself .

“Paranoid,” she whispered to herself.

Then the second man hove into view and she was glad she’d stayed put on her sheltered perch. He also was outfitted in quasi-military garb, but had added an outlandish headdress of vivid hue. He was still too far away to see exactly what his headgear was made of, but it was not, she was certain, military issue. This man was smaller than the one who preceded him and narrower in the shoulders. He, too, sported a full beard, though his was dark and grizzled. On the roan horse’s rump, behind the saddlebags and bedroll, was what looked like a duffel bag packed very full. It bobbed from side to side as the horse picked its way delicately along the rutted trail.

The third man was hardly a man at all, thin to the point of scrawniness and with only a trace of beard. His headgear, a felt hat with much ornamentation, was no less unusual than that of the man who preceded him, and his military-style clothing was ill-fitting and torn. The gear he carried seemed an awkward assortment of boxes and bags roped together. His horse, however, was a beauty, a tall, high-stepping chestnut-colored Tennessee walking horse. Unfortunately the horse and rider appeared to be ill-matched in more than looks. As the horse rounded the bend and came up on its fellows, it shied at a low branch waving in the breeze and started sidestepping, going off the trail and turning in a full circle before resuming its place in line. The youthful rider struggled to gain control and unleashed a torrent of oaths, while the leader of the group turned to watch.

“You wanted that beast so bad, Davy,” the man called. “Now get a hold on him or I’ll give him to someone who can.”

The young man snarled a reply, which proved a mistake. Before he could get himself firmly seated, the lead rider dug his heels into the palomino’s flanks and was on the boy. The palomino whirled to ram its body sidelong into the taller horse as the red-bearded man stood in his stirrups to reach the youth with his right arm. The quirt in his hand sliced through the air with a hiss to lash at the boy’s face. The blow was blocked by the boy’s raised clenched fists as he struggled with the reins. A trail of crimson marked its passage across the backs of his ungloved hands and in a cut on his cheek, but he made no outcry.

“That tongue of yours is going to get you killed someday, Davy, if I don’t do it first,” the red-bearded man snarled, dug his heels into the palomino’s sides again, and resumed his place at the head of the column.

Almost unnoticed in the fray, a fourth man came into view on the trail, this one the biggest of all, wide-shouldered and black-bearded, his camouflage shirt ripped at the sides and laced together, the sleeves cut out to reveal a grimy white T-shirt beneath. Wherever they’d acquired their military dress, there had apparently been none large enough to fit him. The roughly-fitted shirt was held in place at the shoulders by the straps of bib overalls. Only the tips of his cob-soled boots fit into his stirrups, making the massive man appear to be riding on tip-toe. This last man held the reins of his sad-faced gray horse with one hand, while the other reached backward to pull the lead rope of another horse, this one apparently the group’s pack animal.

But no. Again Moira’s hand had to stifle a cry. There was a woman on the horse but she was not a member of the company; that was certain. Her head was bowed, her body swayed as though she could barely keep herself from falling, and her hands were bound by a rope that passed around her middle, holding her arms tight against her sides. Her clothing was ragged and in disarray. Tied to the cantle of her mount was yet another rope, this one towing a small boy, tied at the wrists, who couldn’t have been more than ten years old. He stumbled along wearily at the rear of the column. Moira’s hands clenched at the ugliness before her. Whoever these men were, they were no rescuers. They were bandits, perhaps, or worse. Surely she must do something, but what?

The red-bearded leader had passed directly below the outcrop where she lay concealed when he held up his hand, signaling a halt. The trail, narrow to that point as it threaded its way through the forest, opened onto a small meadow that extended several hundred feet to another bend in the road. Beyond that bend and another, little more than a mile away, was the lower entrance to the museum. Could this be the group’s destination? Moira leaned forward, listening intently.

“Let’s take a rest here, brethren,” Redbeard said. “I need another look at the map.” It was easy to see who called the shots in this group.

The second rider, whom she dubbed “Graybeard,” was alongside the first in a flash, swinging down from his horse before the leader could dismount and hurrying to hold the palomino’s bridle while the red-bearded man stepped to the ground and retrieved a much-folded document from his saddlebags.

The youth, whom Moira was already beginning to think of as “No-beard,” stopped some little distance away, dismounted, and occupied himself in tying the reins of his recalcitrant beast to a sturdy low-hanging tree limb. The animal uttered a high whinny, sidled away and gave the boy a wide-eyed look. He may or may not have been a decent rider, but the horse wasn’t used to him, and obviously didn’t like what he’d seen of the young man so far.

The fourth man, who might as well be Blackbeard, Moira decided, reined in his horse behind the other two and dismounted quickly, looping his horse’s reins over a branch before hauling in the lead rope on the woman’s horse. As she came alongside, he reached up, grabbed her around the waist, and dropped her unceremoniously. As her feet hit the ground she nearly fell but he put out an arm to steady her.

He pointed to a nearby fallen log where she might sit. “Rest while you can, witch woman. We’ll soon be to this mill storehouse, or whatever it is, and you’ll have plenty to do.”

She struggled with her bonds as he reached to free the boy’s rope from the saddle. The boy was hanging back, the rope still taut between his hands and the saddle. “Can you at least untie my hands so I can see to my needs?” she asked, her voice hard and bitter. “It’s not like I’d have anywhere to run to out here.”

The man grinned. “I don’t think you’ll run, because I won’t have to chase you.” He jerked on the rope tied to the boy’s wrists, causing the youth to fall. “You know this little devil’s mite wouldn’t live a minute past your going, don’t you?” He knew the answer to his question. “I wouldn’t come after you. I’d just cut his ugly little throat. Want to try me and see?” He gave the rope another jerk, and the boy, who was trying to regain his feet, fell forward again, this time landing with his chin in the dust. The woman struggled to reach the boy but Blackbeard kept hold of the rope around her waist and pulled her to him instead, forcing her backside against his belly as he bent his knees, then straightened, rubbing himself up against her. “Besides, witch, it’s your turn to keep me warm tonight. You wouldn’t want to miss that, would you?” The woman uttered an oath and continued to struggle until he laughed and cuffed her. “Hold still, and I’ll free your hands. You see to yourself and the boy, and I’ll watch.” He laughed again, a low guttural sound.

Moira recoiled from the scene, knowing she should do something to help the woman. But any effort of hers, weaponless, would serve for nothing except to place herself in equal danger. She kept silent and forced herself to watch as the woman, still bound around the arms by the looped rope, helped the boy to his feet and led him to some bushes where they could at least have the illusion of privacy. First she stood between the boy and his captors, her back to him, so he could relieve himself. Then they did turnabout, suggesting they’d been forced to suffer this solution more than once. Moira shifted her attention to Redbeard, who was standing almost directly beneath her, showing Graybeard something on the unfolded sheet of paper. He appeared to be studying a much-used topographical map.

“It should be right up this next hollow here, where it shows the road leaving the river and going up,” Redbeard said, pointing to the spot on the map and then to the river’s bend.

“How do you know it’s the right road?” Graybeard asked, his voice a tenor whine. “I don’t see any museum marked on there.”

“That’s because it’s an old map, doofus,” Redbeard returned, his tone sarcastic. “What it does show, however, is Falling Spring, right there smack in that hollow. That’s where the museum is. My cousin Ed, God rest his pitiful soul, told me about the place just last year. Said they had every tool you could imagine from the pioneer days. And all the old breeds of stock. And seeds out the ass. We find that place and our worries are over. We can set up our own group over here, go out and find us a few more servants for the Lord’s chosen,” he said, gesturing toward the woman and the boy, “and live like the kings of old, Randall.”

“I don’t think Father Lowell will like that, John,” Graybeard said. “He wanted you to just come over here and bring back tools and whatever scavenge you could find. I don’t think he meant for the Chosen to be putting up new settlements out here in these woods. Besides, it’s damn spooky down here in all these twisty little hollows. I don’t like it.”

“Jeezy-Crow, Randall,” the redbearded man said between his teeth, exasperation making his face red, too. “Every damn thing spooks you. It’s about all I can take, having to travel clear across country just to find what we need, and provide leadership, and all the while having to drag this bunch of sissies and crybabies along. Next time, just stay home,” Redbeard said. He turned to his saddlebag and re-packed the map. “Now let’s get these horses watered and get on our way. We should be able to make the place before night. Maybe we’ll surprise somebody and help ourselves to their supper, huh?” He laughed, slapped the graybearded man on the back, hard, and walked a few feet away before unzipping his fly and urinating on a tree. He laughed again when he saw the woman and child staring at him in disgust. “Want some, witchwoman? You’ll have to wait. It’s Becker’s turn tonight.” All the men guffawed at this, even Davy, snorting a laugh through his acne-scarred nose as he tried awkwardly to remount the uncooperative horse.

Moira had seen enough. Behind the bluff’s edge, the ground dropped away into a shallow depression that led away south over the ridge to Pigeon Hollow. With luck and a little stealth, she could make her way back unseen. Falling Spring was these marauders’ target, she realized, and she didn’t know what to do. First, though, she must get away without being discovered. She crouched lower behind the outcropping and moved silently away. A dozen steps and she would be invisible from the trail. But one of those steps dislodged a rock. The men stopped. A stone’s throw away from Moira, a squirrel ran up a tree and began chattering an alarm. The men laughed, assuming it was they who were being alarming. They turned off the road and headed down toward the river. They did not see the silent woman above them as she slipped away from the bluff’s edge and out of sight. Not just she and their prisoners, but the museum, and perhaps the future itself, were in dire peril. She had to stop them. But how?

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Five : Comes The Dark

The storm, if that’s what it could be called, lasted a couple of months. It wasn’t constant, but almost so.  Over time there seemed to develop an odd pattern to the chaos. Fierce lightning. Howling, destructive winds. A turbulent, roiling darkness, with just enough change in density to separate day from night. Short, unreliable respites at dawn and dusk when the winds would slow and almost stop. And like a clock, a dreadful, wrenching trembling as if the earth were tearing itself apart that recurred with terrifying frequency.

It wasn’t until late in January – Moira would never be able to mark the exact date – she began to take notice of a new change in the light, a slight lessening of the overall torment. It was one of those random moments when her terror subsided enough to hold onto a rational thought. But nothing, including thought, could persist in this relentless cauldron of change.

She was now trying to determine if the sun was actually coming up in a slightly new and very wrong direction. The evidence had presented itself on one of those infrequent days when the sun had made a brief appearance in a position near the horizon. It had been a rare sight in past weeks, and even when visible it seemed to peek out furtively, battered and bleeding, burning redly through the ink-black heavens.  The roiling darkness that had replaced the normal winter sky resembled smoke from oil-field fires, only high and far off and carrying no scent on the frigid wind.

Moira had been attempting to count the days or at least the day-long periods of dim light that had regularly punctuated the darkness for more than a month. She wondered if the polar shift or magnetic storm or whatever rumor gleaned from fitful ham radio bursts had actually proved correct. Not that the exploding caldera at Yellowstone wouldn’t have been enough. She had heard through those ham operator conversations, that the fly-by dark planet may have altered course;  had actually struck the earth; that the earth had tipped off its axis or out of its orbit … and on. Doom after improbable doom was offered in a desperate attempt to make sense of unimaginable events. She doubted if anyone knew exactly what had happened except perhaps the folks on the International Space Station, and they, too, had gone silent. She wondered if the villain, whatever it was, had yet done its worst.

Ten days into the new year had been about the last time she remembered hearing a radio broadcast before the regular radio stations went dead. Before that, from shortly after the first quake, the news had been horrific both far and near, with reports of vast areas of land around the Pacific rim breaking up and sinking, whole islands disappearing in the Pacific, and Texas, my God, half of Texas eaten away, along with most of the Mexican Gulf shore. Greenland had apparently shaken off the remainder of its icy skin and, along with Iceland, was alight with volcanic fire. Everywhere, it seemed, civilizations were crumbling under the weight of massive environmental onslaught, with whole areas of the United States and the world simply gone silent. The government itself had clung to life only briefly before it was completely overwhelmed and had stopped issuing bulletins or warnings. The President had urged calm and had begged God’s forgiveness and his people’s pardon for being unable to offer more help. Then he, too, had been replaced by faint static and then silence. There had been no mention of a Christmas parade.

That had been about three weeks ago. There had been only a slight let up in seismic activity since, although few tremors matched that first jolt. The weather was less kind, offering nothing approaching normal. No rain or snow, just increasing darkness and howling, bitterly cold winds with only the small pauses at dawn and dusk, beginning soon after that the last conversation with Rudy Juarez, and unceasing since.

Moira braced herself as yet another tremor made the trees shiver and the rocks groan. She felt like she was in a war zone, constantly under attack. No, she thought suddenly, pushing the thought away. That wasn’t it. It wasn’t about her, but trust some random, lonely human to take it personally. It was the whole planet that was under attack from what seemed now to be mostly self-inflicted wounds. Mother Earth. Her earthly home, and the home of all life, of everyone she knew and loved, every living thing was at the brink of destruction or past it. It was a place her imagination simply could not go.

Still she couldn’t keep her mind from the circuitous questions that had replayed each day since this havoc had begun. What was really happening out there in other places, to people she cared about? How bad was it? Where and how were her family? Her friends? Were any of them still alive? Was it this bad everywhere? Was it worse? Had anyone else survived? And, most important, when might it end? Or would it?

But though she could articulate many questions, there wasn’t a soul anywhere offering answers. Electrical power was inexplicably still flowing from the center’s power plant. But there were no radio or television stations broadcasting on any frequency she could find. The land line, her cell phone, and the satellite telephone had all gone dead. Panicked by her inability to communicate with the outside, she had searched for and found Steven’s small short-wave ham radio outfit and had for a week or more satisfied her hunger for a human voice by probing the dial for distant messages. But before she could figure out how to use the transmitter for messages of her own, to call for help or to inquire about her home and family, the unit had stopped working, or at least had stopped receiving a signal. Perhaps there were no longer any operators broadcasting anywhere within its range, another possibility that didn’t bear thinking about.

Feeling desperate, she had tried the unit one more time and heard a voice. Quickly she had adjusted the tuning and turned up the volume. But the voice was not speaking English, and the message it was repeating in a tired and frightened voice was not being answered. Then the voice had quavered, static overtook it, and it was gone. She wondered if it was the last human voice, other than her own, she would hear. For her sanity’s sake, it was time to stop listening.

Her CD player still worked, but she began avoiding any music with lyrics. She believed she might go mad from sheer loneliness. For she knew she could be, by fluke of her unique location, the last surviving human.

Then one morning she saw the winter sun rising redly and wide, in a direction that was, to her recollection, due east, instead of east-northeast, where it should have been at midwinter. For several days the impossibility of this phenomenon didn’t fully register, and when it did, she wondered if madness had finally arrived.

She was alive but very possibly insane, a notion she accepted with an odd calm. It was a  curious place to be, insanity being, in these circumstances, defined as a sane reaction to experiences that, while seeming almost normal by now, were wholly outside any reality she had ever known. Yet where she ought to have run screaming with terror into the night or thrown herself from a cliff, she was instead fascinated, mesmerized by this bizarre new world. Her senses overflowed with experiences so forceful, so unnatural and yet so impossibly real, that she sometimes stopped whatever she was doing to sit and stare for hours, held in the thrall of the unearthly noises on the wind, the constant trembling of the planet’s skin, the roiling sky in which lights flickered but no birds flew.

There were days in the past weeks when she had been captivated by the noises alone, sounds of a world that seemed in its death throes, with each moment a changing note in a bone-jarring cacophony. From nowhere and everywhere, the earth’s cries filled the air, now in a rumbling bass, now in sharp staccato. At times she wondered if she had somehow stumbled into a new dimension, one containing a fundament gone to jelly and chaff, which incidentally seemed bent on trying to remove itself from beneath her feet at frequent and random intervals. And above all there were the incessant, horrific storms, hail-filled skies and shrieking, twisting nightmare winds that continued to batter and scour the ridge tops to rubble – a devil’s symphony that held her in its trance until she forgot that such a condition was called shock, and she wondered what the information flooding her senses might mean. Was the very earth out to kill her? She didn’t know. It hardly mattered. All things seemed equally possible.

Still, this citadel of earth-covered concrete where she took shelter remained intact. Daily she rallied from insanity long enough to thank its maker and to devise a set of increasingly important rituals – and do the chores, of course.

Small scraps of control held her back from the edge. She worked out a routine to keep her days in order of a sort. Upon waking, she would put on water for tea, measure finely ground corn meal from the mill into a pan of cold water and set it on the electric stove. She would stir until it thickened, feed herself and the dog, who she decided to call Sheba, and begin her morning meditations while Sheba stood watch.

The same quake that had thrown her favorite ceramic teapot off the shelf and shattered it had unearthed a book, a gift from one of her alternative friends and written by a woman named Starhawk. It was called “The Earth Path.” She began reading, finding words that didn’t necessarily clarify what was happening, but gave her small things to do that eased her fears. She soon learned the words for simple ritual-making. That in turn caused her to read more, to rediscover long beloved tomes by writers as disparate as Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver and Thich Nhat Hanh. Some days afterward, while rearranging her belongings again after a particularly strong shock, she found a card with a verse in it attributed to some ancient Druidic order, called “The Litany of the Earth Mother.”  For some reason, it spoke to her in a very personal way. She altered it somewhat to make it seem a personal message from her deepest self, and began adding it to her own litany of sacred words..

From her experience in a field that had mixed science with hidebound Puritan culture and almost totally peopled by men, she had already been looking a bit askance at the notion of an infallible God of her Fathers even before the world ended, she thought. Now such notions as those offered no comfort at all. In these strange days when the very substance of things seemed tossed asunder, she yearned for something to bring her literally to ground. She simply hadn’t the strength to invest in a far-off, obviously uninvolved heavenly presence, especially one that had elected to lob a stray planet at her earthly home. In these days when the Earth itself needed such healing, why not call out instead to the God, or Goddess, on whose uneasy belly she was tossed, and by whose breath she was blown to the far corners of her courage. Or so she reasoned, if reason it could be called.

In any event, each morning, after a moment of silence to move her thoughts away from panic, she lit a candle, knelt on a cushion before an altar she’d built out of objects, some from nature and some from gadgets made precious by what they symbolized to her — a broken clock, a vial of spring water, a key — folded her hands and began her prayers. She did not ask a heavenly presence to save her. Instead, she began in a spirit of gratitude, voicing the powerful imagery of the Litany, calling to the Mother of All and struggling to find peace in Her presence:

O Earth My Mother.

Thou of uncounted names and faces,

Thou of the many-faceted Nature in and above All,

All Love and Life fulfilled;

Look with favor upon this humble, precious place,

Grace me with Your Conscious Presence, Remind me of your Love,

Inspire and infuse me with Your Power;

By all the names by which You have been known,

Earth, my Mother, hold me close.

And so the days passed, the winds howled,  the ground trembled and quaked, and she kept to her rituals and held on, as best she could, to her senses. The solid, certain presence of Sheba brought her an odd calm. Sheba was not only female but had been pregnant, which is probably why she’d wandered off from her people in the first place. Now there was a pile of week-old puppies in a box by the heater. The dog stayed inside while Moira did the chores and the walk down the hill to attend to the livestock became lonely again.

One day while she was descending the hill, the wind threw an oak branch that crashed to earth where she had stood only an instant before. She took it for an omen. A person could get killed out here. Worse, they could be almost killed, and left to die slowly and alone.

She resolved that day to free the livestock once and for all, and in doing so free herself from the treacherous daily hike. They’d been happy enough to return to their pens after the sky darkened and the winds grew vicious. But they needed to be able to get back out if she became disabled or worse. She didn’t really know if this was a good idea or even a sane one. But it was the only idea that seemed sensible and that offered everyone, including her, the best chance at survival.

She swung open the chicken house door. They’d have to take to the trees to be safe, but there was ample forage if the feed ran out before she returned. She’d be back to check on them when weather permitted. She filled their feeders, emptied the nests, left the door open and moved on. The cows were still in their stalls, waiting to be fed. She worked out the logic of it in her head as her hands put their food outside the stalls in places out of the weather, and set them free.

She opened the horse stalls, put down some food, threw back the huge barn doors and took down the gates that opened into the wheat fields and lower pastures. It was not as important now to save the winter wheat crop as it was to give the animals access to some kind of reliable forage they could get to without her help. She freed the pigs but left the door to their shelter propped open. They were smart, they would figure it out, she thought as she poured grain into an improvised self-feeder that would keep them going until they got to the woods and discovered acorns. Then she closed and locked the granary door to keep the improvident horses from foundering. But she left open a high window in case the chickens or the small crew of barn mice that fed the barn cats needed a bit of extra protein.

Some of the beasts, such as the yearling horses, fled their enclosure immediately, surging in panic or exuberance out of the corral and through the lower field, finally disappearing over a creek bank. The pigs behaved similarly, bolting from their pen in a riot of squeals and snorts. The chickens and turkeys, noticing their range had increased dramatically, quickly busied themselves scratching up new food sources, singing and murmuring merrily. The rest, well, they must fend for themselves too, she muttered, turning her eyes away from the large sad eyes of the bovines standing at the gate to the pasture, looking puzzled, and the dark-eyed Percherons who continued pulling down hay from the stanchions, ignoring the open doorway behind them. She went back to the central corridor of the barn, climbed to the loft above and threw a couple dozen more bales of hay down beside the barn and stacked the mangers in the loafing shed high. The domesticated livestock had shelter for the seeking, and forage for the taking. They might have to develop a little independence, but they would not starve. It was the best she could do.

She could stay down there in the hollow with her penned charges and see they were kept in regular feed only by giving up the only shelter where she could stay warm through all these storms of air and earth – her apartment at the Center. And she wasn’t that crazy.

For one thing, the outer shells of the structures in the village had the insulating qualities of any building constructed in the 1880s, which is to say, none. And as the restored and recreated homes and farmsteads at the museum were not intended to actually support real families through the winter, even though they’d been supplied with wood burning stoves, there was no store of firewood to heat even one house for more than a small interval of time. There was no food for humans at the farm site, no electricity, and nowhere she could keep warm. In the simplest of terms, she could not live there.

On the other hand,  the center held all the elements essential to her survival, at least so long as her luck held. The electrical system remained intact, providing her and her plants with lifesaving heat and light. Also, she realized with some amazement, at the center was the stock of incredible stores she’d laid in against the museum’s once-far different need as a tourist attraction. Much of it was still piled in untidy heaps that couldn’t be damaged by seismic activity, but it was protected and available for needs that now might stretch not only beyond expectations but beyond imagination. Should her circumstances become permanent, she thought, she was better-supplied than Robinson Crusoe. The realization didn’t exactly comfort her but did help hold blind panic at bay.

The electrical power generated by the small subterranean power plant inside the dam had not so much as flickered during the worst of the blows and tremors. The dam, spillway, and everything in and behind it had survived, at least so far. Even the mill, although its roof had sustained some damage from falling debris from the bluff, was still structurally sound, sheltered as it was by the bluff against whose face it rested. And, incredibly, the bluff still held together and the spring still flowed.

She continued her litany of what-ifs as she walked. With luck, the greenhouse plants could be kept alive indefinitely by the heat tapes at their feet and a battery of grow lights clustered low over their heads. And if summer ever came again, there were the seed stocks – enough open-pollinated plant varieties to grow food for herself and a few animals virtually forever. If the livestock were lucky and possessed sufficient foraging ability, they would all find ways to make it through as well. They were herbivores, after all, and food, even in winter, was available for the finding in the woods and fields.

But that wouldn’t really take care of every situation. So what she would do was this – at regular intervals, say every week or so if she lived, she would return to the village to put out more food for them. It would take a stupefying amount of luck, along with all the cunning and wits they could muster, for any of them including Moira to survive for long in this strange new world. She would have to learn what she could of her new circumstances by experience, and by keeping a meticulous record of events and occurrences, and she was doing that. She had started keeping a journal on day three of this changed era when she realized the earthquakes might not stop for a long time, and therefore just about everything she took to be normal was gone for good. She had taken a sturdy notebook from the office stores and started a daily book of events. It had already begun to come in handy.

For instance, the winds were savage but not constant. They seemed to die down for a while near sunset and to surge back with increasing violence as soon as full night fell. The earth tremors and the deep booming noises were more difficult to predict, but they, too, seemed to follow a pattern of sorts. In any event, she had reasoned, her only hope was to muster what sanity she could and work out a new pattern of her own, a schedule of tasks and responsibilities that she could reasonably expect to maintain. As much as she regretted having to leave the animals to their fates, removing the cycle of daily trips to the village in this vicious weather would increase her survival chances considerably, and actually remove the tie between her survival and that of the animals to some extent. At least she hoped that’s how it would work out. At any rate, it was done. She opened the last gate, threw down the last bit of corn, and headed up the hill.

As bad as things were, she realized, they could still get worse. In the back of her mind, never far from consciousness, was the knowledge that summer might not come at all. She knew about the theorized phenomenon of nuclear winter – described by experts as what would happen when dust from the number of nuclear explosions that might be expected in an all-out war blocked out the sun, resulting in years of cold and dark, with no seasons, no summer growth, and, after a while, no life. It could be occurring now, possibly as a result of what she was sure was widespread volcanic activity. Perhaps, she thought, she was seeing the predicted phenomenon demonstrated first hand, for the forecasted results seemed similar to what was now occurring. This, along with the oddity of the sunrise being possibly in the wrong place, seemed good evidence that the polar shift, or whatever it had been, had indeed occurred. For all she knew, the shift might have thrown the planet out of its orbit. For all she knew, she might be the only human witness to the last pitiful struggles of life on Earth. Actually, it might be time to think about something else, she decided. She turned on her heel suddenly, remembering some detail still unattended to.

The day, what there was of it, was beginning to fade, and the momentary reprieve from the wind was about over. To punctuate the thought, a strong earth shock threw her against a stanchion just as one of the Morgan mares wheeled and bolted through the doorway. She missed by scant inches being trampled. She turned, pale-faced, and made her way unsteadily across the barn lot and resumed her journey on up the hill.

It was time to take up another task. Rudy and his friends had sent supplies against every variety of event, some of which she hadn’t opened yet because they were marked to be opened only in the event of a doomsday scenario. For her money, Doomsday was here. It was time she dug through the mess to see if there was anything that might alter or improve her circumstances even slightly. She doubted it. But she had been stubbornly holding onto them as something of a last hope, in case all else failed. Well, she asked herself, am I not there?

What she found initially was so small and so impersonal that it seemed no help at all. She hoped for and found a satellite phone, but no one answered any numbers she tried. She hoped for emergency numbers, and there were some, but she worked her way far down the list with no success. And she hoped for an indication that help, in some form, might arrive. None was offered. Instead, under another small bundle of iPads, and a supply of sealed rechargeable power packs for them, she found a heavy envelope with a letter containing her official government orders. As she read the instructions and the purpose for including them, it finally hit her just how bad things might be and how much more they had known from the beginning of the scare than they’d been willing to share. Her eyes welled with tears at the introduction, and her fist held her mouth closed against any sound as she read.

“Beloved friend and colleague: If you are reading this, then our time on earth as humans is in grave peril, and you may be a resident of one of our only surviving outposts. We hope with all our hearts it has not come to this. But if it is so, we have taken these steps to secure as much of recorded human history and knowledge as can be stored for the use and understanding of future generations. With damaged systems and reduced resources, it stands to reason that even if populations survive, as repairs are made, some technological advances and the knowledge base upon which they were built must be set aside. Likewise, without computer networks, much communication of knowledge and skills will also be lost. These small units, if powered and used sparingly, should last for some decades. They are keyed to access computers on the space station and other information satellites that circle the earth, as they will continue to do for centuries, although it is not known how long and how well their makers will continue to be able to communicate with them. Some places on the planet may retain these capabilities while others may not. We have done our best to preserve as much as we can. We send this into your hands with all our desperate hopes for your survival, for you are our future. God’s blessings on you.

Moira read it twice, then repacked the computers in their heavy wrappings and carried them down the stairs into the seed vault, where they’d be safe. She didn’t need them, but somebody might, someday.

That had been weeks ago. Uncounted days passed until she was surprised out of a fitful sleep one morning by a ray of sunlight shining on her face.

It was being reflected off the small mirror hanging beside her window – a mirror whose reflective side, she realized later, in a moment of clear thought, faced northeast – reachable, at an angle, by the sun in summer. In winter, as now, it should have been facing the sun edge-on. There it was again, that tiny, insignificant, totally impossible thing. She had noticed it before but had attributed it to her inability to think rational thoughts. Now science replaced suspicion. It was true, what she’d thought earlier. Either the planet had somehow actually tilted on its axis, or else . . . what?

It was not until very early spring that she finally put that phenomenon alongside the other overwhelming evidence that something cataclysmic had indeed happened to the Earth. For one thing, unusual birds, most of them waterfowl, many of them sea birds, were appearing alongside the museum’s resident population of khaki Campbell ducks. Many of them seemed confused, shaking their heads, flying up to circle aimlessly and then landing again. It seemed the tiny grains of magnetite they grew above their noses to guide them during migration must be sending confusing messages. Likewise, no form of electronic communication, which had ceased during the seismic activity, ever resumed; there was still no signal to be had on any communications device, even the short-wave radio.

What begged for an answer was why, now that winds and seismic activity were beginning to subside, did no radio signal, short wave or long, reappear? Why, now that the sun was visible for a little while on most days and weather was becoming more stable, did she hear no airplane’s drone, no beat of helicopter blades. No drone of a truck somewhere. Or whine of a chain saw. Was there really no one left in the world’s wreckage but her?

It was not until the nightmare winds began to soften and she could explore the area outside the compound that she was able to acknowledge the mind-boggling scale of the destruction. She was alone, yes. But how alone? Was there anyone left at any of the nearby towns — or anywhere? What about Springfield? Springfield was a thriving city with a major airport and four television stations. Or Ft. Wood, with its Air National Guard detachment that should be patrolling, looking for survivors. How could it all have just disappeared?

She wondered if she should simply leave the place that had held her safe and strike out in search of civilization. But where to? And how would she get there? After a hike out the driveway to the paved road, she realized there was simply no way to do it. In the direction of the river, a mountain of uprooted, broken, and shredded trees lay across the road where it crossed the ridge top. The other way, where the road had gone through a cut blasted through the nearby hilltop, there was now only a line of pavement disappearing into a new hillside of loose clay and rock. The tremors had sealed the cut, completely obliterating the road. There was no way for any rescuer to get in by the normal access routes. And if the lower road by the river looked at all like these upper ones, there was no way out there, either. She would just have to wait for someone to come by air, or the river.

She exhaled an explosive breath that contained a bitter laugh. And who would that be? Of all the nearby human settlements that might possibly have survived, no one would think to look here. Of all possible surviving humans within rescuing distance, only Steven knew for sure that she had stayed at the museum. Certainly he had vowed to come to her aid, but that was about as likely as waking up tomorrow to find this had all been just a bad dream. Possible, she admitted, but damned unlikely.

All she could do for now was stay alive, keep the museum’s infrastructure intact, and keep her wits about her, such as they were. Even if she was lost in the middle of nowhere, and even if the world had turned completely on its head, there were the seeds and the gifts sent by Rudy and his pals – from food and the other necessities to the computer linkups to satellite libraries. Somewhere, safely stored, were all the tools and information needed to fuel and reboot civilization, if she, or someone, could keep that link alive.

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