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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Eighteen: Growing Pains

By the fifth year of the Change, the settled territories had established tentative boundaries and developed some idea of how both regional and national governments might work. Populations were still isolated from one another by distance and modes of transportation and when faced with limits and losses to their base of skills and resources, their neighbors were too few and too far away to be counted on. They were coping with the loss of continuity that comes from a long, shared history as they struggled to survive in the radically changed world they now faced.

As a result, their visions of community seldom matched perfectly with folks in other territories. Those who had established locally-chosen rules based on old world notions sometimes struggled to come to a mutual understanding with other groups who had different notions. While most clung to some semblance of democratic rule, many added creative variations that spoke to their particular circumstances and populations but were not easily translatable to people in other circumstances. The Hoppers maintained a peaceful understanding with the people of Falling Spring regarding recreational use of smokable hemp, for instance. But in territories who viewed their use of hemp as an evil drug, it was a different story. When interactions went badly, the Brothers came, freed them from arrest, relieved them of what they saw as a commercial product and just sent them home. It was hard work, but in most cases practical solutions were found that enabled groups to form agreements, either by making adjustments to the rules or by nudging some elements of a population to seek a home with those who were more likely to agree with them.

As the regions were established, those who called themselves The Religious and were called Lidges by others at first sought to lay claim to the entire western third of the island of Ozarkia – from the southern harbor at Theo to the farthest reaches of the uninhabited north. Unfortunately for them, others had already spoken for the parts of that region where pre-Change settlements survived or new ones had become established. Those others were willing to organize enough to form their own regional government but wanted nothing to do with the rigid theocracy adopted by their southern brethren. Among those who asked to be “included out” were a pair of enclaves that held inholdings both east and west of the once thriving but now struggling village of Ava. One was a women’s land trust, mostly lesbian. The other was a clan of avowed anarchists who wanted little association with outsiders, and, in fact, had vowed to reject any form of government that sought to rule them. The small trading post that had sprung up there at the Ava crossroads, composed mostly of a couple of extended families of B’hai, supported and made a connection with both communities, which were the largest source of the post’s livelihood. The resulting scattered community took a vow of kindness toward all who showed them respect, and called it good. They were willing to be helpful and get along, and wished neither to cause trouble nor to deal with the troubles of others, they said.

A dozen miles north, on a high ridge that overlooked the western ocean, more settlers gathered and formed a town from the survivors of the vanished western lands, coming to ground in the remains of the old village of Mansfield. The ragged settlement swiftly grew into a thriving, diverse community that called itself Hilltop. Its success was thought to lie in its location, where the remains of the old east-west highway crossed a north-south highway that once had run all the way from the new south coast far into the northern wilderness, where no one had come from and no one had yet gone – or if they had, they either never came back or weren’t talking about it. The town made its living primarily as a stop-off on the road to other lands, including the coastal settlements that had grown up adjacent to Amish farmland. Travel between those lands, however, required the building of new roads, because the Mansfield Fault had shifted during the cataclysm, leaving towering bluffs in place of the road west. Catering to travelers, Hilltop became a handy location for inns, hotels, and stores of various kinds.
The existence of settled lands at the end of the north road was rumored, but few had traveled very far in that direction. Civilized territory stopped at the abode of the metal miners and landfill scavengers, among them the blond men who passed through Falling Spring on their way between the territories selling their repurposed wares. As their work was hard and dangerous and involved mostly the repurposing of metal, they had taken to calling themselves the Ragtags, and mostly kept apart from others except when they joined the traders in their now twice yearly caravans.

Across the territories, such people as had stayed on or come back to their family holdings were assumed to have undisputed claim to them, while those places that remained abandoned for the entirety of years since the change could be claimed by others seeking land on which to settle.

Some of the logical changes in the overall culture of this new nation could have been predicted by anyone with any training in sociology, or so observed Steven in a journal he was keeping to track the newly forming history of the New World’s beginnings. The Society of Brothers, for instance, had gotten its start as part of a natural process kindled during that first long winter at Glen’s Cave. Glen himself, Steven noted, had come to these hills some years before the Change, seeking the life of a hermit, trying to escape the press of civilization. But the collapse of that civilization had driven him back out into the world, first to explore and then to look for what he could do to help those who survived. The formation of the Brothers had been one major result.

By way of the town meetings, the family dinner gatherings and a host of groups of like-minded folks who formed relationships in families and other alliances, the people of Mumbros learned to heal by talking through their sufferings and triumphs, until they found resolutions. Simply speaking, he said, they honored one another and came to peace. Instead of arguing over what to do in a new circumstance, they thought through the problems as they arose and dealt with them. Over time, and sooner than many would have predicted, a new vision of order, choice, responsibility, and accountability was brought into being at Falling Spring. The emerging vision was a surprise to many.

Somewhere in the fourth year, Steven asked Moira if she was happy at how the community was developing. “I suppose a good part of our emerging world view, as well as our ability to accept changes, was carved out by the hardships of the past. We realized that to survive we had to get along with one another. For a long time we thought we were just one tiny group among the few surviving remnants of humanity. Now that remnant has become a thriving, growing culture. We are now vigorously involved in the work of starting anew. I’m proud of how far we’ve come in such a short span of time.”

Actually, Steven observed, the thing that had finally tipped the balance and had brought the territories together to forge a council with jurisdiction over the whole nation was the problem of random groups and individuals laying exclusive claim to resources that were actually owned by none but vital to all. It was one thing for a territory to try laying claim to a large chunk of what they thought to be abandoned land for their potential future use, as the Lidges had attempted. It was quite another to simply hijack a resource vital to the nation and hold it for ransom.

It had started with coinage. Needing a common medium of currency the council had managed to settle on a currency of coinage based on the dollar. Since there was as yet no way yet to replicate paper currency, an agreement was reached to assign new value to the metal coinage they could garner, and so when bank vaults were breached, making coin more readily available, the territories once again had a common medium of exchange. The problem that developed was one of scalping – there were some few in isolated areas who had seized not just coins but other vital resources, then jacking up prices to the point of outright banditry. A shipment of salt was stolen. Several caves containing saltpeter were stripped of the substance, which was vital to the curing of meat. So agreements were enacted that limited holdings, establishing reasonable property rights, and defining those things that were to be considered as “community property, in the national interest.” Because Mumbrosans and the Burenites to the east were the most prosperous and therefore the most intent on fair dealings with their neighbors, Steven wrote, they were the ones who drove the need for a central authority. The Council stepped into that space and a national government, casual as it was, came into being. During that same period a separate eastern contingent of the Brothers was formed, based in Popular and given a mandate to enforce order and fair play in those areas and beyond.

Moira’s extended family constituted the largest and most influential group of scientists, and so, as promised at that first conference on education, Mumbros was where scientists and students of the sciences gathered for advanced studies. Soon, enough students had completed advanced degrees that in the autumn of the fourth year the University of The Plains established an Institute for Graduate Studies at Falling Spring.

To the surprise of some but not all, one group at the institute immediately put its focus on studying the apparently increasing mental capacities and psychic abilities of the sentient beings, not all of them humans. As they established parameters to monitor and record their findings, which echoed the suspicions and beliefs the first family had voiced more than a year earlier, the researchers verified observations that without any visible cause or pattern, individuals in all the sentient species were developing some unique and identifiable abilities.

Among humans, some had an uncanny ability to track animals, others could find their way through the wilderness without a map or compass, still others could seek out and find salvage, a few seemed to be able to heal minor physical injuries solely through touch. These new abilities were no respecters of gender or cultural roles and so even as more than a few of the men elected to become or remain homebodies, one of the women, then two, then five, had chosen and insisted upon a place among the Brothers and had been accepted after demonstrating their own suitable skills. Some abilities, on the other hand, had been identified as disabilities, when a few sad individuals found themselves trapped by emotional actions and reactions they were unable to control, and had to be cared for gently by the community at large. Results of those studies, as Steven noted, were kept confidential, although observations by the community as a whole became fireside tales, soon developing into a colorful mythology discussed widely, especially in evenings at the Inn.

For all their successes over the past five years in preserving knowledge and skills, many more ordinary talents were still in short supply, and people’s abilities and skills of all kinds became more highly valued. Crafters, especially carvers, sculptors, and fiber artists, began offering apprenticeships so those skills could be passed into younger hands. Even Lon Brixey began encouraging those interested in the brewing, winemaking and the distilling of spirits to sharpen and pass on their skills, encouraging more than one young fancier of chemistry to spend an apprenticeship at Grove Hill. His timing was excellent, because another small upriver settlement in a long valley suited for farming had been gifted with a variety of nursery starts including bundles of fruit tree scions that had been heeled in by Tish and some helpers as she unloaded her cart of rare and precious plant starts. After five years of establishing orchards and vineyards, that settlement was able to supply Falling Spring and other communities with such luxuries as cherries, plums and the first of the bamboo harvests. And, to Lon’s delight, they were just now coming into a sizable harvest of wine grapes. “Go! Do the work! Come back a vintner or a distiller!” He had shouted repeatedly at the students nursing an after-class pint of ale at the Inn. And some of them did.

Another cultural shift underway was the announcement by a few brave men that while they intended to fulfill their duties of maintaining and adding to the still fragile gene pool, they preferred as their domestic companions, as did Toby and Rickard, the company of other men. A few women expressed similar, if opposite, inclinations. No one balked at either notion, though there was some small but heated discussion in some quarters about the possible rifts in the fabric of culture if people started stepping outside their more “natural” roles. That assertion was laughed into silence by a community of people that was beginning to get a new sense of itself. That they were all still human, Moira, as their leader, never doubted. But they were beginning to be something more as well. Enlightened, perhaps. Open, certainly.

But government, even on the village level, was not as simple as some might think, Moira observed after a particularly painful discussion among the midwives that spring. For unknown reasons, one and then a second newborn had arrived suffering serious conditions that had begun inside the womb and that would make life difficult if not impossible to sustain. The conditions were dissimilar: one frail little girl was born with a malformed and barely functional heart; the other infant, a boy, arrived looking perfect, but with lungs that had never developed properly. His every breath was a gasp, and treatment options were simply non-existent for either child. Ellen and Moira had sat with Alice, holding her hands each time as she weighed her choices: to let them suffer their slow way to a pain-filled, frightening end, or to take their lives in her hands and end them herself. And there was a second question: Should they make those difficult decisions on their own, or let the parents decide. As it turned out, whether by fate or the kindness of the gods, neither of those awful decisions came to them. The girl, born to a couple from the bus people, was at her mother’s breast feebly trying to nurse when she gave a sudden shudder and just stopped. Her parents had been prepared for that possibility from the first, and took it in stride, grieving but understanding that their tiny child had been spared much unnecessary pain by that outcome.

The second child, born to free agents Rae Jean Compton and Arthur Slocum, was still gasping when Alice came into the birthing room just off the infirmary. Rae Jean had been ensconced there holding the infant, whom she’d named Amos, for most of the day once the birthing was ended. She was patting him, crooning to him, stimulating his arms and legs, hoping against hope that his breathing would improve. It would not, but she didn’t believe that just now. Alice stepped up beside the bed and put her hand on Rae Jean’s forehead.

“You have to get some rest for yourself, honey,” she said. “I can hold him for a little bit while you nap some.” She took up the infant, said “Hello, little Amos,” and wrapped him in a small blanket she’d heated on the stove in the next room. She sat down in a rocking chair next to the bed and began her vigil.

Rae Jean fell asleep almost at once, and Alice had almost dozed off as well when she began detecting a change in the raspy breathing coming from the small bundle. It was slowing. She looked across at Rae Jean who looked back, her eyes filling with tears. But when Alice offered to hand the infant back to his mother, she shook her head. “Don’t disturb him,” she said.

Slower and slower came the little gasps, until finally he seemed to take in a long, unhurried breath followed by a deep sigh, and the tiny newcomer fell into that deepest of sleeps and was gone. “Sweet dreams, little Amos,” Alice whispered. “Sweet dreams.”

Arthur was summoned from his post outside and the parents wept together, while Alice sought Moira in the greenhouse nearby.

“It’s over,” she said. When Moira gave her a questioning look, she shook her head. “He went on his own. I guess he just wanted to come in and look around a bit. He may be back sometime.”

“If love has its way,” Moira answered.

That night at the family’s supper, medical choices, midwifery and childbearing were high on the agenda of topics at table.

“Couldn’t we have done anything at all,” Steven asked, deep in sorrow at the news.

“If we had any kind of technological sophistication,” Ellen began, but Moira overrode her comment.

“But we don’t. And we won’t. And everything that could be done was done. And at some point we’re just going to have to resign ourselves to the fact that in earlier times it was the midwife’s job not only to catch the baby and see to the birth, arranging the tools, educating the parents, it was also her job to recognize when the fetus or the newborn just wasn’t viable. We’re back to that point. We don’t have a neonatal center. We won’t have one in our lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes. All we have here are our skills and our training and our compassion. If reinforcements were coming, they would already be here. It’s on us. The hard stuff should always go to those who are able to deal with it. There’s no one to hand it off to. It’s. On. Us.” Dinner went on from there, but mostly in silence.

This year at Beltane everyone, even the staunchest Christians, joined in the raucous and rowdy celebration of survival, fruitfulness, and, for the first time, real hope for the future. Due partly to the continued separation of the sexes during the winter months for the first years of what had come to be called “new time,” and partly to the continuing evolution of consciousness, there came to be more and more unions of varying degrees of intimacy and variety. An overriding consciousness of the fragility of the gene pool grew into an acceptance of what came to be called pan-families, with women bearing children by more than one father, and men fathering children by several mothers. Same-sex unions were accepted, but refusal to bear or to father children was frowned upon unless there were health or gender identity issues involved. Households formed of small groups of individuals who felt affinities for one another and shared relationships of varying intimacy within them. Likewise, extended families tended to occupy one or adjoining households for extended periods. The only taboos enforced strongly were those against incest, battery, and the abuse of the helpless — anyone caught stepping over those lines was simply shunned and sent into the wilderness to fend for themselves, often with a tattoo applied to their foreheads that proclaimed them a danger to others. It was a lesson that needed little reinforcement after being demonstrated a couple of times.

As for the Brothers, there came a time when their shelter and headquarters turned into a retreat and training center. In this fifth year, the fields, cropland and commodities for export reached a sustainable level. With hunger no longer an ever present danger, the men who had been wintering in the north finally came home for good.

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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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