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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Nine: Assembling A Family

Glen settled into the rhythm of farm life like he’d been born to it. By the time he’d been there a week, they’d all assessed each other, and found themselves comfortable with the change. The family, for family it was beginning to appear, met each day at the farmhouse for breakfast to discuss plans for the day’s work. With Glen sawing and Joey stacking, they cut a great number of branches from the hollow’s blown-down trees into firewood lengths against the needs of an unknown future. Then Glen and Moira harnessed the gentle Percherons and snaked the larger lengths of oak, ash, walnut, hickory, and pine down the slopes and to the large pole barn next to the mill where the woodright’s raw stock was stored.

While that work was underway, Ellen put herself in charge of the daily farm chores, including garden and pens, and made sure the meals were plentiful and on time. One rainy day she left a meal of sandwiches and potato salad in the cooler for the others and journeyed up the hill to the commercial kitchen in Moira’s fortress home, where she took inventory of all their food stocks, including canned and frozen foods.

The report she delivered along with dinner was comforting at first, but became less so with the telling.

“We’ve got plenty of everything for now,” she said. “In fact, we’re pretty well supplied for the next couple of years with canned vegetables, fruits, and the like. But that’s where it begins to fall apart, because by that point we’ll have to replenish those stocks. Our supply of canning jars is laughably small, not to mention jar lids. I found just two cases of quarts and a single case of pint jars, each with a single set of lids and flats. Without more flats, those lids are not re-useable.”

“That may not be the entire store,” Moira said. “I’ll check the cellar and smokehouse. Helen may have put some away closer at hand to the farmhouse kitchen.”

“I’d have checked them already, but they’re padlocked,” Ellen said, and Moira grimaced.

“My fault. Sorry. What else did you find up there?”

“There’s still half a freezer-full of pre-cooked food, I guess made for the demonstration kitchen. But we’d better make a point of using it up because it’s beginning to show some freezer burn. Also, I saw we’re down to about our last four hundred pounds of baking soda. Whoever placed that order has kept us in biscuits for the next hundred years, provided the flour holds out. Speaking of which,” she paused and looked across to Moira, then at Glen. “If we don’t get that wheat crop out and some corn put in soon, we’ll have no biscuits nor any cornbread next year. In fact, I’m not sure the flour we have will hold out that long. I checked the wheat bins up at the mill, and they’re nearly empty. Have you all thought about what you’ll do on that end? I imagine it’s not much better in the granary.”

Glen cleared his throat and began, “I’d been meaning to mention it, but we’ve been going so hard I put it aside. You know we’ve got those two fields down by the river that are planted to winter wheat and oats. They’ve been grazed some, but there’s plenty left. If we don’t get any more rain this week, I should be able to get in there with a mower. But we don’t have a grain combine. I guess the guys here just harvested by hand.”

Moria nodded. “Scythe and cradle. It’s tedious, but you don’t lose anything that way.

Glen was silent, considering the idea. “The fields look to be about ten acres each. It’d take us two or three days apiece, at least.”

“But we wouldn’t have to wait so long for the ground to dry out, would we?” said Ellen, excitement in her voice. “We could start tomorrow. Unless there’s something more important.”

“No,” Moira said. “If we’re going to do it, and it looks like we are, then the sooner the better. Another couple of weeks and we’re going to be cutting hay.” Glen groaned and Moira grinned. “And you thought you’d already been busting your butt. You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, buddy.” And she laughed, a carefree laugh such as she hadn’t heard come out of herself since way last year, before Thanksgiving. Before . . . Sudden tears sprang to her eyes, and she heaved herself up out of her chair. “Mornin’s likely to come early,” she said with mock sternness. “I need to get some Zs.”

Dawn saw Glen in the smithy, sharpening the scythe blades he’d found in the garden shed. Nearby, Moira was assembling the sturdy, lightweight cradles that fit on the scythe handles and would catch the grain stalks as they were cut. She had sent Joey to load a roll of baling twine onto a wheelbarrow. She’d made his morning when she issued him his own Barlow knife and assigned him the job of binding the sheaves of wheat as they came off the cradles. Ellen brought plates of biscuits and spicy sausage gravy with two eggs on the side. Moira and Glen each got a mug of steaming coffee, while Joey received a rare treat — hot chocolate. They made short work of the hearty victuals and were headed toward the field almost before Ellen made it back to the farmhouse. She would be along later, she said, after morning house chores were done and dinner put by. The sun was only halfway up the sky when her head popped up over the rail fence and she hopped over the stile. Gone were gingham dress and apron, replaced by overalls a size too large, a loose cotton shirt, and the wide-brimmed straw hat she wore while gardening. Given a brief lesson on the scythe and cradle, she was handed her own tool, assigned a row the width of a scythe’s swing, and left to her own devices. She leaned into the job and slowly acquired the skill.

By noon they had cleared almost an acre and were speeding up as their skills improved. Joey could no longer keep up with their bundles. He had retired to a shady spot and was cutting lengths of cord according to a measure given him by Glen. He delivered them by the handful to each of the cutters as they called for them. His pup, christened Aluicious, Alley for short, was helping.

With the sun overhead and the breeze no longer keeping the sweat dried on their faces, Moira finally called a halt.

“Let’s stop now so we’ll have the strength to do more later,” she said. They combined their last bundles into a single sheaf and headed for the farmhouse. They had just clambered over the stile and stepped into the roadway when suddenly Moira cried out and broke away from them, running up the lane as though a demon were after her. Her three companions looked at her in astonishment, then past her down the road at the museum’s lower gate where a man stumbled toward them, leaning on a wooden staff, a large pack on his back. Moira reached him in time to catch him as he slid to the ground. When the others reached them, they were even more surprised, because Moira and the man were on their knees in each other’s arms sobbing as if their hearts would break. Steven Lane had returned, just as he’d said he would. Strapped to his back on a packboard was his six-year-old daughter, Sarah. She seemed barely alive.

Once they were fed, Steven was relieved of a short version of his story — the town of Alton almost deserted, decimated by a virulent flu virus for which there was no treatment, with the town’s only doctor the first to fall, and Steven’s family dead, except for this one daughter. He slept the clock around and more, rousing himself in time for supper the next night. By that time more than half the wheat was cut and bound into shocks, standing like tousel-headed children in the field. He insisted on joining the work the next day, and by that night they had finished the wheat harvest.

Joey took on the care of little Sarah, who it seemed wasn’t ill, only half-starved, terrified and exhausted. Having a chance to be older than someone brought a new sense of responsibility to the boy, and he seemed to thrive on it, bringing her snacks, drinks, and small meals. He and Alley kept her entertained while the others worked the fields.

The crew thus enhanced made short work of the oat harvest as well, and by early June they were eyeing the hayfields in well-muscled anticipation. But one night at dinner, Glen made a surprising announcement.

“I guess I’ll stay on through the haying season, then,” he said in response to Moira’s description of the effort it would take to get the hay baled, hauled, and stacked in the barn’s massive loft.

“Where else are you gonna go?” Joey asked, laughing.

Glen didn’t answer for a minute, until he looked up from his plate and saw that all eyes were on him. “Well,” he said, as if they should already know what he meant. But he saw that they didn’t. “I was on my way somewhere when I stopped here,” he said.

A chorus of protests rose, and he held up his hand until there was silence. “Yes. I know. I’ve gotten real comfortable here. But even if I was to decide to make this my home, which is real tempting, believe me . . . we still need to know what else is going on out there in the wider world. We don’t need any more surprises of the kind you all had,” he said, looking pointedly at Moira and Ellen.

They had told Glen what happened after he questioned the circled cross brand on two of the four new horses. Moira had filled in Steven as well. They understood what Glen was saying. But the news of his impending departure, even though it made sense, was unnerving. They had come to depend on his strength, his savvy, and his trustworthiness. Steven was still recovering from his hurts, and without Glen they wouldn’t feel as safe anymore. He watched their faces as they each digested the news. Finally, he spoke.

“Look. The main clean-up work here has been accomplished. The feed crops are in, or will be. And you said yourselves there are things we need that someone is going to have to go out and get. That somebody is me. I’m the logical choice. I’ll take a pair of the Morgans for pack horses and bring back canning jars. And jar lids. And a newspaper if I can find one, by God.”

He stopped, the emotion in his voice bringing all their feelings forward. He took a deep breath and continued. “Most of all, we need to know for sure just what kind of a future we’re looking at. We need to know what’s left of this world. We can’t just sit here and let things happen to us. For all we know, this place, its resources, its seed stocks, may be the last best hope for survival, just like Moira has feared. If that’s the case, we’d better know about it. And we’d better get a few more hands to help, if there are any out there that are sane and reliable.”

They sat in silence for a long time, until finally Joey spoke and broke the mood. “See if you can find some more kids while you’re out there,” he said. “Me and Sarah are getting tired of just hanging out with crabby old adults all the time.” They all laughed, and Glen promised to do his best.

The next morning, Glen and Steven spent a companionable pair of hours at the barn and blacksmith shop, selecting the animals best suited for travel, repairing tack, including Glen’s worn saddlebags, and talking. Steven had spoken little thus far of his experiences prior to arriving at Falling Spring. Now, knowing of Glen’s impending departure, he seemed almost eager to share his thoughts.

“You picked out a route yet?” he asked.

“I have to go east first. I’ve got relatives over by Van Buren, or I did. I want to go far enough to get down off the Ozarks Plateau and see how it looks over closer to the fault. So that means at least as far as Poplar Bluff and Crowley’s Ridge. Then I’ll either head back here or follow the ridge south. All depends on what I find.”

Steven sighed. “I’m afraid all you’ll find is heartache, my friend. It’s bound to be worse over there. There may not be anything left at all.”
Glen nodded, his face a grim mask. “Either way, we need to know. You have any plans to venture out again?” Glen asked.

Steven shook his head but was a long time in answering further. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I’ve become a coward. I hate to admit it, but I felt a fear out there like I’ve never felt in those woods. I don’t want to go out there again at all. I mean, I was brought up on a farm, but this is different. I got so scared that we’d just die before I got us here, and nobody would ever even know where we fell. And then I thought maybe I’d get here and find her gone, or dead.”

Glen grinned at him. “She wasn’t, though. She’s one tough cookie, our Moira.”

“She is that,” Steven agreed with a chuckle. “Always was, although I’d never have dreamed . . .” he stopped, shaking his head, and made a gesture toward the graves up on the hill, his thumb and forefinger making a gun.

“Hah!” Glen laughed. “I would, after the way she went after me that first night.”

They laughed, then became silent. Finally, Glen spoke.

“You know, it’s funny about that. It was Moira who made me realize what we should be doing, and where I might fit into it all. I mean, it’s so easy to just look at all that’s happened in strictly personal terms, like it’s a disaster that’s only happened to me, or to us.

“But she’s right. What if we’re it — just us and maybe a few others here and there? There’s no way we’ll survive as a species like that. We’ll just live out our little spans and die, and that’ll be it. No more humans. I can’t . . . I can’t accept that. If there’s a way to find some others and bring them here, we might have a chance to begin again the best way we know how. And if there are more of those devils over west, I’d not want the world to end up in their hands, either. There ought’a be some alternative. So that’s my cobbled-up thinking. I think it’s worth a try, at least. What have we got to lose?”

Steven nodded, but his face was drawn as if in pain. “You’re right, of course. But I don’t think I’m going to be any help to you. I honestly don’t think I can ever go out there again.” He sat down on a hay bale and leaned forward, hands cradling his head and elbows resting on his knees. Glen stood for a moment watching, then moved to sit beside him. He pulled Steven to him and cradled him like a child. Steven tried to pull away, but Glen held him fast.

“Now you listen to me. I’ve got brothers of my own, or I did. And I’ll tell you like I would tell them. I don’t think words like ‘coward’ have any place in our lives here. This is all just too damn scary and too hard. We start judging ourselves by anything beyond our ability to just show up, and we’re lost. We are all valuable now, just as we are. We’re all we have. After all,” he said, loosening his grip and poking Steven in the ribs, meeting his anguished look with a wicked grin. “We can’t all just saddle up and ride off into the sunset, er, sunrise. Somebody’s got to stay here and keep the girls company.”

Steven looked shocked, then broke into a whoop of laughter, followed by Glen’s brash cackle. Thus far “the girls” had expressed absolutely no amorous interest in either of them. They’d all been too tired, and too scared, to even think about it.

“Tell you what, fella,” Glen said, “You stay here and tend the home fires while I ride out and see if there are any other fires burning somewhere. Maybe I’ll find us both a girlfriend.” He slapped Steven gently on the shoulder as they both stood, chuckling again.
Steven blew his nose noisily. “I’ll settle for you finding your way home again,” he said.

The new family found the Solstice celebration bittersweet, knowing Glen was leaving soon. Food, laughter, and a fire for jumping made a party of it, and little Sarah had her turn as fire vaulter, but in Steven’s arms, squealing with delight as everyone applauded. Both were recovering quickly from their time in the wilds, at least physically. But Steven’s eyes were shadowed and his smile infrequent, and Sarah was still afraid to sleep alone. Joey, though, was determined to lighten her heart. As the others talked, urging Glen’s return by summer’s end, Joey showed her how to find the Big Dipper in the night sky.

The morning of July first, Glen was saddled and underway astride his four-legged equine pal Willy, leading a pair of pack horses lightly loaded with food and camping gear. One of the collie pups, which Glen had taken to calling José, decided to go along and would not be denied. After sending the wagging adolescent back twice, Glen threw up his hands and relented.

“I guess we need somebody to watch out for us,” he called back from the old road that snaked back north along the river. He was standing in his stirrups to wave at his assembled family who watched him from the gate. As the little caravan reached the bend in the road, all eyes turned aside, following local superstition. Watching someone as they disappeared out of sight cursed the journey, or so it was said. Besides, it was time to get back to work.

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