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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Thirteen: Troubles

Some weeks later, just as the main portion of the village was ending its work day, another lot of would-be settlers arrived, led by a tall, very slim, bearded man who introduced himself as Ephram Larch. He had a haughty demeanor as he scanned the parts of the village visible from just inside the gate, suggesting he was examining the accommodations and finding them wanting.

When asked the usual question about beliefs and world view, he snorted and said, “Truer Christians you’ll never find anywhere.” Behind him on a handsome blue roan horse was his younger self, by the look of him. He was Larch’s son, called Brynner. After him came a young couple, Leatrice and Huck Lewis, in a buckboard wagon loosely filled with supplies, some of them piled to make a bed for Eva Swan, an elderly woman who was Leatrice’s mother. She appeared to be quite ill. Someone had sent for Moira and when she came down the hill, Glen was waiting for her just out of hearing from the visitors.

“I don’t like this bunch, Moira. I saw this fellow up by old Terisita preaching to a little bit of a crowd, pitching hell and damnation and wrath of god stuff. I never invited him nor any of his crew. He must have got wind of us and followed our trail.”

“Well, we may be stuck with him at least for the short term, as it’s too late in the day to just send them out into the wild. We’ll have to put them up for a little bit. It won’t take us long to suss out what they’re made of.”

Glen nodded and started to walk away, then stopped. “We’d best have someone keep watch over them until we know what they’re up to. I can’t help but think that he, at least, has some of his own designs in mind for this place.”

“You know who we might put to the job?”

“How about young Ted? He’s beginning to get his strength back and is looking to be of help. You might have a word with him over supper.”

“Or sooner,” she replied. They parted and Moira drew nearer the conversation by the gate.

Rick had finished his assessment of their needs and was on his way back to the his little house, which also served as the village canteen and welcome shed, to find the village map and see what nooks and crannies might be available to hold the five newcomers. Moira meant to introduce herself, but stopped when she heard the hiss of Ephram’s hoarse whisper.

“I wonder where they got that little nancy-boy,” he spit. “Looks like they could offer a proper welcome, instead of sending out some pervert to paw over the weary travelers.”

She stepped forward. “I’ll be the one to do the welcoming, mister. Although I wonder that you’d be so soon willing to bite the hands that mean to make your dinner.”

Ephram flushed and yanked his hat from his head.

“Beg pardon, Ma’am. I didn’t mean to speak poorly. Where might your husband be, if you’ll permit me to ask?

“Ask away. But you’ll not find him. I’m not here in place of my husband. I’m here representing what’s left of the federal government. And I’d like you to state your business here.”

“You’ve got no man to be in charge? What kind of place is this?”

“It’s my place, mister, and unless you and your friends mean to sleep in the cold dew outside the fence tonight, I suggest you learn to watch your tongue. We’re not a community that excludes people for their differences, unless they make themselves intolerable.”

At that moment Rick reappeared and began to direct the visitors.

“I have a little cabin right at the end of Main Street that’s empty. It’s small, but it will serve temporarily. There’s not much for bedding, but I expect you’ll have some with you. It’s three rooms, so Mr. and Mrs. Lewis can have one, Mister Larch and his son will take the next, and your mother can have a room to herself. I’ll take you there now, then show you gentlemen to the stables. If your mother needs a nurse, we can see to that as well. I’ve already sent someone to tell the kitchen to rustle you up some dinner.” He ushered them away into the gathering dusk and Moira, shaking her head at the bizarre encounter, headed for the farmhouse to propose a new job for Ted. Glen was right to be concerned. She had no idea what the others were about by coming here, but Larch was going to be trouble. Of that she had no doubt.

The next night was meeting night and was attended by all, including the new arrivals. The village’s human population had now grown to 25 and if the newcomers stayed would hit 30. They were now officially full, since no other housing remained except for the summer kitchen behind the farmhouse, and with its vast brick oven and iron cookstove it would not easily be converted from its original purpose.

Now that most of the harvest was in, it was time to assess the community’s progress and shift most of the harvest crew to other tasks, most of them involving construction. Moira called on Eldon to make the first report.

“As y’ know, we’ve been shorthanded at every turn, so things have gone slower than they might have. However, since last week I’ve taken a crew and four wagons up to my old place, and we managed to bring back about half the lumber I had stored up there. We’ll need to start on the school soon. But given the way people keep coming in, we thought it best that the Inn be given first priority. With the foundation work already done and the walls up, we’ll be raising some partitions up on the second floor by end of the coming week to make some sleeping rooms. We can divide up the downstairs as soon as we can decide on what goes into an Inn.”

He asked for help with the design and both Rick and Toby raised a fluttering hand. Toby had a word to say on inns and what they should offer. “Something to drink besides water would be good for a start,” he said with an impish grin. At this a laugh and a cheer went up.

“If enough basic equipment could be salvaged from stores and from what other gathering expeditions might bring, a small restaurant or pub could be assembled so people could sleep and take their meals there,” Ellen commented.

More good news followed as Annie LeBeaux announced the completion of her laboratory. In her report she said she, Ellen, Alice Compton, and Haley Slocum were now working to develop an infirmary/pharmacy/dispensary within what had been the large public space at the visitors center so they could better see to the residents’ ongoing medical needs.

The next report on the harvest, by Toby, was not so encouraging.

“As you know, much of the planting was gotten in late, due to lack of hands to do the work. We’ve been fortunate, as most of you who came later brought some food stocks with you. Still, we won’t know where we stand until all the root crops are in. It’s going to be touch-and-go even at best. As it stands now, we’re just barely going have enough food to get us through the winter. The livestock situation is some better, for we’ve had two good cuttings of hay and are looking at one more, maybe, before frost. But if very many more folks show up, well…”

Just then, Helen spoke up. “One thing we could do, and we’ve already started it somewhat, is use the big kitchen and larder up here to make at least one of the days’ meals for everyone. That way we can better portion out the food and make sure everyone gets at least one good hot meal a day. There should also be at least some food and snacks kept at the Inn when it’s finished, hopefully before winter. We should probably put a food crew together to see the whole thing is organized and efficient, so things don’t go to waste.”

“That’s good,” said Moira. “Anyone who’s interested in helping with that, get with Helen after meeting.” Several nodded, and Eldon raised his hand.

“It sounds like to me, if we mean to be careful with the food and still have room for more incomers, I’d best be starting on a boarding house next, or a dorm, or bunk house. Something. If we could find the right salvage, I could put in a commercial kitchen there, and we could serve a noon meal for everyone down there, with a regular dining room.

Helen quickly whispered in Moira’s ear and she nodded

“If you can put together something sturdy enough to house it, you can take the whole kitchen from up here on the hill,” Moira said with a grin. “The village has far more use for it than I do, and it’d be more convenient for everyone, especially Helen, because she’d have more ready help.” Another round of nods followed.

“Any questions or other issues,” she asked.

Ephram Larch raised his hand. “Where is your church?” he demanded.

Moira hated his tone, but the question was a valid one.

“Well, Mr. Larch, since you’re new here, you probably don’t know much about the history of this place. It has only been a real village for less than a year. It’s actually part of what used to be a small national park and was intended to be a work of living history, demonstrating how folks lived in centuries past. The Park Service staff were building replicas of what facilities would exist in such an old pioneer town, and they just hadn’t gotten to the church yet. But if you’d like one, you’re certainly welcome to help build it. I’m sure we have several carpenters willing to help. And as it happens, we already have a minister.” She had Ray stand and introduced him to the newcomers. He stammered a welcome awkwardly, but was smiling when he sat down.

After suggesting it might be time for those assembled to gather themselves into smaller groups or crews according to their interests and talents, Moira called the meeting to a close and announced that the next week’s meeting would be devoted to the subject of education – everyone’s education – and how to develop best practices for living in the world as it had become. As usual, everyone’s thoughts would be welcomed. Then Ellen brought in trays of cookies pebbled with dried fruit and a spare quantity of nuts. She drew close as she handed Moira a pair of cookies.

“That went well, I thought. How about you?”

Moira grinned and shook her head. “I don’t know. The more I think things are settling into place, the weirder they seem to get. I think we’re going to have some trouble out of that Larch guy. He reminds me a little too much of some other guys we had to deal with once, in the long-ago.”

Ellen’s lips tightened. “Then deal with him we will,” she replied. “I don’t suppose you considered just shooting him when he came up to the gate?”

Moira snorted a laugh that sent cookie crumbs flying, and shook her head yes, then no. “Too many people about,” she choked out, and they both collapsed in gales of laughter. When someone asked what was funny, Ellen shook her head. “It’s a very long story,” she said, and Moira chimed in with a “Too long. Much too long.” For the rest of the evening, they avoided looking at one another because the meeting of their eyes set off more giggles. Evidently, they agreed the next morning, that once grim matter had finally been laid to rest.

It was as Moira feared. Ephraim Larch, despite all cautionary words directed at him, seemed determined to throw up obstacles to virtually every aspect of any plans for the village’s future. First he wanted to challenge the actual structure of community life itself. His general complaint centered around the notion that women were in charge of everything that mattered, and that just wasn’t right. They were making decisions they just weren’t suited to, he said, which Steven and Glen found hilarious. It especially rankled him that Moira was the community’s highest authority, and no argument, even the one that she represented the last vestige of government, would appease him. For her part, Moira had been done with trying to appease him about anything from the time she overheard his first sniping, whispered comments at the gate.

At the next town meeting to discuss, among other things, the principles by which their community might move into the future, Larch had an opposing opinion about everything and Moira soon tired of his interruptions. He first tried to divert the discussion into the need for armament, which was rebuffed. When discussions turned to the need for a school, he asserted that the school’s coursework must be guided by fundamentalist Christian principles. Then he insisted that all subjects other than homemaking should by rights be taught by men.

Moira had had enough. “Mister Larch, I believe you have misunderstood what we are here to do. We are making plans for a school, a school that will address life as we know it. It must serve to prepare those who will come after us to live in that world. It is far, far too soon to discuss what we plan to teach in it, and how, and by whom. We need to move on with the real concerns that face us today.”

He continued sputtering, and she said, finally, “How about this? Next week we will take up consideration of our various belief systems, our attachment to traditions, and the need to accommodate a diverse population. Will that do?”

“No, but I see I’m outranked here,” he snarled. “And as for true Christian traditions versus this ‘diversity’, it appears to me there’s only two traditions here, the true believers and your little rabble of heathens. I’m not sure you should even have a place at the next meeting.”

Moira smiled a broad and very cold smile at that. “I will be the judge of where my place is, thank you. And if I need your advice, I’ll ask for it. Now sit down and hush. We have work to do, and you’re being a hindrance.” Those gathered moved closer in and kept to the subjects before them, and soldiered on to the end of the meeting.

Then came an event the following week, just hours before the next scheduled meeting was to start, that turned the discussion about diversity and traditions and one’s place in things completely on its head. Rick and Toby had just finished serving up morning tea, coffee, and little breakfast buns to the early workers stopping by their small cantina when they heard the sound of singing, many voices singing. And then there was a shout, followed by a whoop of joy, again from many more voices than should be there. Evidently there were visitors at the gate. But when Rick reached the entrance, he could scarcely believe his eyes. This new congregation, if that’s what it was, was possibly the most ethnically and racially diverse group of humans he’d seen since moving years ago from California to the Ozarks. There were eleven of them in all, including, when they’d gotten the stories straight, three African-Americans, two Asians, one Pacific Islander, an Arab, a Sikh and three people of various Hispanic origins. And they were very happy to be there, apparently, because they were laughing, cheering, and all talking at once. By the time Toby had raced up the hill and fetched Moira, Rick had made at least a little headway in sorting out their story.

First of all, they were tourists, or had been, all of them from the St. Louis area. They had been riding on a tour bus just north of Memphis, returning home from the Gulf coast, where they’d spent the Thanksgiving weekend at the casinos in Biloxi. Then the first big earthquake hit. The driver had managed to stop without crashing the bus, but they had been very close to the fault zone. They had exited the bus safely, but had afterward suffered many injuries and some fatalities during their first few days while making their way through some violently disturbed terrain that was never still and was rapidly filling with water. They finally made their way to Poplar Bluff and found food and clean water and shelter of sorts, even though the city, which they insisted on calling Popular Buff was mostly in ruins. They were welcomed after a fashion and some had stayed there. But there were too many of them, and some proved too “diverse” for some, so that portion had decided to move on to what they called “Vanbyren.” Room had been made for them there, but grudgingly, for that town was already overcrowded and resource poor, and when spring arrived and the winds subsided, most had been ready to attempt another trek in hopes of finding either an abandoned town where they could settle together or someplace where they might be better received. They had experienced just too much hostility and suspicion, especially toward their darker colleagues, from those very homogenous, i.e. white settlements, to feel safe, they said. They’d heard rumors of some fabled settlement where it was said people of diverse origins might be welcome, and they had decided to try for it, using a highway map with the little park shown on it. That leg of their journey had taken some two weeks, they said.
Their arrival threw the entire ensuing meeting into chaos, leaving Ephram Larch so dumbfounded he had nothing to say. Instead of wrestling over beliefs, the discussion was on how many rooms at the Inn could be quickly made livable and how soon a dormitory could be finished. Then there was the question of how on earth they would all be fed. Fortunately, along with the newcomers had come a trio of pack animals carrying a supply of foodstuffs along with their meager belongings, so concerns over immediate hunger were assuaged. It was obvious, though, that this was only a very short term solution. The entire flock was bedded down in the cavernous lower floor of the building that was to be the Inn. Sandwiches and snacks were brought down from the kitchen at the Keep, and they got comfortable as Moira explained to them the conditions under which the community was organized. They were thrilled to comply.

As for the meeting, it was decided that further discussion about schooling as well as about religious traditions would just have to wait until the chaos had subsided.

The conflict, however, was far from over. Some who had arrived earlier, the Riggs sisters in particular, had already expressed discomfort over how few “traditional Christians” existed in the population. There were Christians of various sorts among the new arrivals, though, and Moira was encouraged, for Larch and the Riggs girls had now found some things in common with people who at least marginally shared their beliefs. Things should get better now, she thought.

But instead, they got worse, not through anyone’s fault, or from bad intentions, but because of the serious issues that had to be faced regarding their real-life circumstances. Even before the last of the fall harvest was in or the huge batch of newcomers arrived, it was evident there simply would not be enough food to keep everyone fed all winter without depleting the seed stocks to dangerous levels. Without sufficient seeds to replant and enough extra to save against crop failure, they could only delay the demise of the entire settlement. Again it was Glen who came up with a solution, over the first family’s dinner table in the center’s former conference room.

“I’ve enough stored away at my place, in a large, roomy cave below my house, to feed maybe twelve —fifteen people over the winter,” he said. “Plus, the hunting is really good up there. Why don’t I take that many of the single men and boys up there and hole up for the winter. It’s a good shelter, they’d have water and a way to keep warm, for there’s plenty of downed timber to cut. And the cave was used as a hideout during the Civil War, so it’s been worked on to make it a little more homey. We could spend the winter passing around our skills and learn things from one another. And without all us heavy eaters around, you should have plenty on hand to keep the ones who stay. I mean, we could just go up there and bring back the stores, but that wouldn’t solve the drain on other resources or the housing problem.”

It was not the best of solutions, but it might work, the family decided. In fact, town meetings aside, here at the dinner table at the Keep was where most essential policies guiding the community were often formed and refined. They had taken seriously Joey’s notion of calling the massive structure the Keep because they kept not just the seeds there but priceless tools, knowledge, and records – the irreplaceable essentials, in those deep, climate controlled vaults. It also remained the only private meeting place for these few who were charged with keeping order as the population swelled and village life became more complex.

They presented Glen’s solution to the villagers at the next meeting and it was accepted. But when the time came to select who would go, religion, in the form of Ephram, again became a problem. Urged on by him, many of the more conservative Christian men claimed they were unwilling to leave their families “unprotected.” Nor did they want their young men spending months away from their families, especially in the company of those they considered unchurched heathens.

Then Moira caught wind of another, more sinister plan that represented a larger threat to the community. Ted, who was still keeping an eye on the Larches, had heard them scheming over a plot to wait until the other men left, then oust her as the community’s leader and replace her with a “good Christian man.” Not surprisingly, Ephram was both the instigator of the plan and the prime candidate to replace her. She hurriedly called a family meeting at the Keep. Then, backed by Glen, Steven, Joey, and Ellen, she called the villagers together in a special town meeting and spelled it out for them.

“I’m embarrassed that this discussion has to take place at all, but since it appears necessary, let me be as clear as possible. That you were welcomed here at all,” she said, looking pointedly at Ephraim Larch, “is a testimony to our generosity and decency as a family. We had already established our own rules and laws for this place which is in our keeping. If you mean to stay here, then you must respect that generosity as well as our ways. If you cannot abide them, then I invite you to seek shelter elsewhere. I am confident there are other communities more to your liking that would welcome you. In fact, we can provide you with maps to show you the way and loan you the transport to get there. And we could certainly use the space. Then there is the matter of resources. We have already agreed that in order to survive the winter some of you will have to spend those winter months elsewhere regardless of your personal wishes. None of us wish to leave or to send others away. We simply do not have and cannot get enough food for all of us to stay here through the coming winter. In addition, from observing the weather patterns as we head into the fall, we think it’s likely that the violent storms we experienced last winter may repeat themselves. So if we, and you, are to make this move, and do it deliberately, we must begin preparations now. At the first sign of worsening weather, Glen will take the men who have the least attachments here and head north. They will spend the winter months there at his home beside the Jack’s Fork River and return to Falling Spring as soon as the storms abate in early spring. Anyone who can’t abide this arrangement, or who can’t abide our ways, is welcome to choose alternatives. Glen can tell you about a couple of communities that are more – conservative, if that’s what you prefer – and help you to gather your belongings and move there before travel becomes dangerous.”

“I can be their guide and take them there, if they can be ready to go soon,” Glen agreed. Asked to define “soon,” Glen said, “within the next couple of weeks.”

At that, Ephram leaped to his feet.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on here,” he said in a loud, hoarse voice, spitting in his rage. “These women, these witches, are sending us good Christian men off to die so they can have our women and turn them into witches, or worse. They don’t have the right to say what we’re to do. They’re women! They shouldn’t even be allowed to speak. This place belongs to God! If anyone’s going to leave, it should be these godless heathens with their circles and charms.”

Several people looked surprised and some were offended at his outburst, but a few were nodding their heads. He was just getting into the rhythm of his speech when a metallic click caught everyone’s attention. Larch turned to look at Moira and found himself staring down the barrel of her pistol, which was aimed at his head.

“I’ll tell you what gives me the right,” she hissed in a voice no one had heard her use before. “This place is in my care. The responsibility for its survival is mine. I have paid for it in blood. A long time ago, before any of you knew of its existence, I was given the job to protect it. I take my job seriously, Ephraim. I would kill for it. I have killed for it. And I would do it again if need be.” The crowd surged back at the threat and bedlam threatened.

She holstered the pistol and raised her hands, calling for quiet.

“Listen to me. Listen. Do you really think you have been sent here because you’re good Christians, or because you believed we were? Do you not know where you are? This is the last outpost, the last hope, so far as we know, of rebuilding human civilization. Do you think we will let this outpost fall in order to appease your beliefs, or anyone’s? You may think what you wish and go where you wish to think it, but here at Falling Spring we will place our faith in human dignity and intelligence. We will worship the world that has let us live another day here. We will honor our differences and find common ground. And we will care, by any means necessary, for the seed stores in our keeping.
“They, not you, are our future. Without them there will be no future for any of us. If you would like to participate with us in this endeavor, then I advise you to keep your divisiveness and your nasty little egos (she said this last looking straight at Ephraim) to yourself, and join the work. Until and unless we find out differently, we must carry on as if we truly are the last hope of humankind. We don’t have time for this petty conflict over whose God is in charge. Everybody’s God carries equal weight here. If you have a problem with that, then leave. Otherwise, let’s stop this nonsense and get back to work.”

And they did. When Ephram turned back to look at the crowd, it had already begun to disperse, leaving him standing alone. Steven went to him, put his arm around the man’s sinking, dispirited shoulders, and led him off to the stables, where they worked the rest of the morning shoveling manure and arguing philosophy, a combination that caused great mirth when Steven described it at supper that night.

The next day the winds turned colder, and the day after that came the first howling drafts that foretold the arrival of the dreadful winter storms. The men would have to go north, and soon. But first Glen must guide Ephraim and his son, the Lewis family, and whoever else wanted to go, to a fitting home in another settlement. At first the Lewis’s were torn about what to do, because Leatrice’s mother, Eva Swan, was still too feeble to travel. But as if answering their concerns with a practical solution, she passed quietly in that first windy night and was buried the next day up on the knoll with the other settlers, old and new. And so the cemetery gained another, far more peaceful resident than the other recent arrivals. The following morning the little party took their leave without the Riggs sisters, who decided in the end they didn’t want to leave their little farm.

That same evening at the Inn, in a light furnished by the generator at the mill pond dam, the community gathered to discuss when the men should leave, who among them should go, what they would take, and what (and who) must be left behind. The discussion continued until late that night and long into the next lengthening evenings weighing the options.

As they talked, more concerns surfaced, and some frank discussion ensued, some of them out of the earshot of all but the family. When Annie and Alice joined the conversation over dinner at the Keep, the talks on genetics turned to an examination of the existing and probable future human gene pool. Ellen was older than Moira, but still pre-menopausal. If civilization were to be maintained, there would simply have to be more children and every effort made to have them. Also, some elements of conventional morality around the tradition of monogamy might have to be at least temporarily put aside, and that would require discussing it in plain terms with all the villagers – especially the women.

Fearing another confrontation with those who still might be too conservative for such notions, Ellen and Moira began calling women aside quietly, both those still capable of being mothers and those who had enough experience to form a cadre of midwives. They explained what needed to be done. Quietly, in most cases at least, Moira thought with a smile, the long evenings soon became more entertaining for a good many of the community’s residents. Memories were stored that kept quite a few men and women warmer through the winter nights apart.

And children came in plenty through the following summer and early fall.

Evidently some of the same discussions took place in the northern outpost at Glen’s Cave, because several of the younger men returned in spring eager to attempt a closer association with some of the girls of their own generation. Tom Langston took up with Regina Sharp, a young black woman from the bus. Arthur Slocum began courting Rae-Jean. And Eldon Case struck up a romance with Ruthie Riggs after his own mother, Marianne, moved across the hall of the farmhouse and in with John Langston.

Late that following summer, along with several of the village’s women, Ellen had a son, named Latham, after her father. Moira, after much deliberation and worries about not doing her part, finally declined, citing the many responsibilities she had that would be jeopardized by having an infant in tow. Besides, she had adopted the orphaned toddler, Jared, who was growing fast but still a handful. Maybe next year, she said, and Ellen supported her decision. What had started as a ragged bunch of survivors was fast becoming a real, diverse, multigenerational community. This new world was at last beginning to look at its future with some confidence that there might actually be one.

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Twelve: A Season of Beginnings

 

Looking back, Moira was grateful the meeting was over by the time Annie LeBeaux arrived on the scene, for she’d have raised enough questions and thrown in enough ideas to keep them talking all evening and into the night. But it was midday the next day before she chugged up to the gate, now always kept locked, and tooted the horn on her fabulously unique vehicle.

At some time in the past it had been a motorcycle with sidecar, Moira decided. But it had long since given up any pretensions of adhering to its previous identity. For one thing, it had a solar panel for a roof. Across the handlebars was a shelf beneath which several cords and bungees held an assortment of poles that at second glance appeared to be garden tools, several fishing rods, and possibly a harpoon, all tied together. The shelf, piled with an assortment of gadgets, extended back toward the driver and held several large pockets, pouches, and baskets into which were stuffed a bandanna, a folded topo map, binoculars, a pistol, several highway flares, a canteen, a crank-charged radio, a large jar of vitamin C pills, another of ammunition, and an iPod.

Both the cycle and sidecar were painted an astonishing number of colors, and the sidecar was packed to the gills with bundles, bags, and boxes of mysterious and unknowable stuff. The whole apparatus was towing a lawn-tractor trailer rigged to a homemade hitch, and it, too, was piled high with boxes wrapped in a tarpaulin and tightly bound.

Rick was first to greet the amazing Annie, and he sent Joey running up the hill to fetch Moira while he invited her to his patio for coffee.

“Tell me you’re not putting me on,” the woman said, her voice rasping, her shoulders suddenly straighter at the mention of the now rare beverage. She looked to be about 70-something, short, stooped, and with weathered skin, red hair going to gray, and green eyes going everywhere, darting from one new sight to another as if to memorize or to verify its reality. Her face was tanned and creased, with lines running deep, from laughter and much else it seemed. She wore a worn cotton tee and fatigue pants with many pockets. Her hands were rough as she twisted a thin cigarette from makings in a can.

“It’s the real thing and just brewed,” Rick said and laughed as she sniffed the air hungrily. “How do you take it?”

“Just coffee. Thanks. Oh, my sweet mother,” she sipped, sighed, and continued to look around her.

“Been looking for us for long?” Rick inquired softly.

Her gaze drew inward. “Long enough. I took a wrong turn up north a ways and ran into some nasty little critters.” She shook her head. “It’s good I had a gun. It’s gotten scary out there.” She said no more but sipped her coffee until Moira arrived, then leaned forward and stuck out her hand.

“You the chief?”

“More or less. I’m Moira Evans. I headed the museum, so I was a federal officer back when we had a government. No word on that lately,” she said.

“Don’t hold your breath. Annie LeBeaux here. You know a fella name of Glen Truett?”

Moira nodded. “I thought he might have pointed you our way.”

“Not because he thinks I’m cute,” Annie retorted. “I’m a biochemist by trade. I can make about anything if I’ve got the raw materials at hand. I figured you might have a use for me. It’s for pretty damn certain nobody else has.” She gestured over her shoulder at the fabulous vehicle. “I brought my kit and my library.”

Moira sized up the small woman, looked over her outfit, and liked what she saw.

“Well, Annie, if you can put up with my company, I believe I’ve got a good spot for you, one I hope you’ll find comfortable enough. It ain’t the Ritz, but the rent’s reasonable. When you finish your coffee, come on up the hill and I’ll show you around. And by the way, we don’t have any objections to churchy people, so long as they have no objections to us.” Annie grinned and shrugged, but had no comment.

On her last fumes of fuel, Annie drove up the hill to the Keep, unpacked her gear and after some discussion, installed herself at the back of the main hall, using book shelves and display cases to wall off her domain, which now included one of what had been the public restrooms. It was now being retrofitted as she began setting up her laboratory equipment. Moira stayed nearby, tidying the largely empty front hall and making sure she was on hand in case Annie needed help. But she finally called it a night long before Annie finished fashioning her abode and workspace. The few times Moira glimpsed her lean form as she went searching for a tool in the warehouse, she appeared to be plugged into her iPod and partly walking, partly dancing. She asked few questions, mostly in search of tools and supplies when needed.

Rickard stopped Moira in mid-step coming down the hill next morning to ask how the new resident was settling in.

“Well enough, I suppose,” Moira said. “She worked late. She’s now all unpacked and is well on the way to getting her lab up and running. She’s asking good questions and is pretty savvy about our needs and circumstances.“ She stopped, but kept nodding her head.

“But…?”

“But what?”

“But what aren’t you saying?”

“It’s nothing.”

“What?”

“She’s…noisy.”

“How do you mean, noisy?”

“Like…well, she sings. To her iPod?”

“So?”

“She can’t sing.”

Rickard lowered his head until he was looking at Moira over his glasses.

“I know,” she said. “Get over it.” And he nodded.

Alice, Ray and Rae-Jean Compton, the neighbors who had moved in with the Riggs sisters over the winter, had stayed on after the sisters had gone back home to work out how they might be a part of the community, from where they should live to what they had to offer. It was a long discussion and involved many meetings with various people. When Alice disclosed her skills Ellen immediately took her by the arm, led her away, and kept her several hours. Even if Alice Compton had arrived alone with just the clothes on her back, she’d have been a godsend. She had been a family nurse practitioner at the clinic in Alton and was the first real health-care professional they’d seen. The day after, while Moira was getting Annie settled up the hill, Alice was busy laying claim to the tools from the doctor’s office and moving them up the street to a two-room shop next door to Ellen’s place where she planned to install a tiny clinic.

Ray, her husband, identified himself as an Episcopal minister whose faith had been badly challenged by the events of the past few months. He exhibited all the signs of severe post traumatic stress and seldom spoke unless spoken to. Pressed, he said he no longer felt qualified to serve as a spiritual counselor, and asked to be considered based on his minimal skills as a laborer.

Eldon offered him a job as a part-time helper at the mill, but after discussion it was clear he’d be better for the present in the job he already had as a dairyman for the Riggs sisters, since he only had to show up on time for the milking. Alice said he sometimes just went missing but was usually to be found nearby, often just standing and looking at the river. His was perhaps the most visible but far from the only case of PTSD. Using Ray as a willing example, she cautioned that everyone should be careful to give each other breathing room and kindness as they made their way back to the present reality. Soon, someone thought to organize a second weekly meeting where people could come just to talk. It helped, though its efficacy was most often judged by the community members reactions when another aftershock hit, or later, when the vicious winter winds returned.

Rae-Jean, the Comptons’ teenage daughter, was a problem of a whole different order, a 16-going-on-35-year-old womanchild whose hormones were looking for somebody to show them a good time. And at Falling Spring, good times of the sort she was looking for were hard to come by. Fortunately, her mother recognized the symptoms of hormonal suffering and gave her plenty of chores to keep her occupied, mostly helping her father down at the dairy.

The Compton family was happy with the idea of working in the village but staying with the sisters, where Ray and Rae-Jean could manage the heavier work at the dairy. Alice had a good horse and with the help of Ray and Tom moved all her own medical equipment to her clinic space and hung up her shingle, complete with office hours. With pharmaceutical supplies virtually unavailable, she, Ellen, and Annie also began spending regular hours consulting together over how possible alternatives to lost medicinals might be found or made. Everyone here had experienced such emotional losses that they all suffered some damage; the wounds were mostly invisible, but all very real. Soon the three quasi-medicos were prowling the woods, meadows, and seed stores, searching for things like skullcap, arnica, boneset, and hops. There was much rejoicing when a healthy patch of St. John’s Wort, an herb used to treat depression, was found up near the cemetery. There was no cannabis, but Annie allowed as how she might have a few seeds. All the remedies for which they only had seeds were out of reach until another harvest. Until then they’d have to make do. As soon as Glen returned, he might be persuaded to go back to see if anything was left of the Alton Clinic or Ellen’s house and its stores, they decided.

To be honest, Moira was pleased about the arrival of new children not just for the benefit of having a ready-made younger generation but also for the wealth of opportunities to foist off the remainder of Sheba’s puppies, for they were driving her to distraction. Fortunately, Sheba had only had five, but having given one to Joey and another to Glen, she had three of the beggars still loitering around underfoot. She meant to make sure every arriving child had a dog until she was down to just one again.

Steven’s daughter Sarah hadn’t really settled on one pup in particular, so when Tom, Ted and Lettie arrived, Moira pounced, leaving it to them to sort out which pup went with whom. They were thrilled, but Ellen jeered at her exhibition of crass self-interest. She had to alter her view shortly after Glen returned.

As told previously, Glen finally made it back to the little valley on September 15th, just in time to help harvest the field corn. He was thinner and looked weary, as did his horse, Willy. Behind his little pack train of two heavily loaded horses, in a makeshift wagon pulled by a sturdy Welsh pony, were two young girls ages nine and eleven, Presley and Hanna Scott, whom he’d rescued from a situation bad enough he wouldn’t describe it, and a small boy, a toddler, found beside the road alone and near starvation. Piled around the children was more pillage from his search for supplies. Behind them on horseback was 40-year-old veterinarian Haley Slocum and his teenage son Arthur, who was driving a wagonload of their possessions and veterinary supplies. Others would be coming later, said Glen, as soon as they could work out transportation. He might go back for a few, he added. But first he must unload his horses and give them a good long rest.

While he did that, the first order had been to find every one of the newcomers a place to land, and they soon found their niches in the rapidly shrinking makeshift living quarters scattered around the village. Moira was delighted to see so many more young people in the group and she knew Joey would also be pleased. The Scott girls made their home down at the dairy with the Riggs and Comptons, giving Ray a sunnier attitude and Rae-Jean more to occupy her time and reflect on the consequences of having children. The Slocums took up residence in a small shed next to the barn that had been used to store surplus grain, and opened a tiny clinic focused on animal health.

The little boy was not as easy to place due to his age. He was oddly drawn to Moira, which she enjoyed. She had taken him into her arms as Alice brought him from his first medical exam and much needed bath, and had fed him crumbles of bread and small sips of milk as she tried to elicit information from him. He could talk, barely, and was politely requesting “mo behd” and “mo miik” as he swallowed each bite. She was surprised and touched at his apparent level of comfort with her, as he was smiling and patting her hand as she fed him. She must remind him of someone. How could anyone have just left him behind? But again, who knew what perils they had faced. It would remain a mystery. When asked his name, Glen thought he’d said “Jed.” But he frowned and fussed when called that. It was Ellen who tried the name Jared, and caused him to giggle and beam. He was a charmer for sure. But they had to get some weight on him. Surprising herself, Moira asked if she could keep him with her for a while and got no objections. But because of so many demands on her time, he was often shunted between Helen, Ellen, and Steven as well, and he soon assumed those four were his family.

There was a short commotion among the dogs when Glen brought out the pair of hefty Pembroke Welsh Corgi adolescent pups he’d found at a house where no one else was still alive and brought them along in his saddlebags. The male of these, a lad named Barney, stepped right up to Ellen the moment they met, sat down at her feet, met her eyes and offered a paw, plainly saying, “I’m here about the job, mum.” Her heart was lost the moment she laid eyes on him.

His mate, a bouncy little girl they named Hester, was just as firm about Sarah, finding her in the orchard reading, clambering right into her lap, heaving a great sigh, and going straight to sleep. The new girls had brought their cats with them, so for a little while, everyone was paired up except the one boy, Arthur Slocum, and he was only longing for his computer. Moira had an idea she might be able to help with that.

It was as if the entire village had gone on holiday the next day when Glen opened his packs and tossed aside the covers on the loaded wagons. Inside were utensils, tools, and canned or boxed foods and medicines, all salvaged from a farm supply and a small grocery store that had been left open but untouched, the occupants long fled. Moira swept in with Steven close behind to gather up the tools before others could help themselves. The tools and findings would be stored at the warehouse until the storehouse was ready, available for residents to borrow as needed, Moira explained. But first they needed to be marked and catalogued so they could be checked out when needed and retrieved later. Every item had to be treated as though it were irreplaceable. Because it was. She put the foodstuffs and canning supplies in Ellen’s hands, who commandeered Annie’s refueled transport to get them up to the main kitchen. While they gleaned and sorted, Glen told them where he’d been.

He could have brought a larger entourage, he said, but there were more than a few he had not told of this place. Most of the little settlements he’d found were welcoming and the residents of most seemed happy where they were. But there were also several enclaves and individuals he had avoided approaching at all, once he’d watched them from a distance. Some were in armed encampments; others were too far gone, mad with grief and fear or in other ways out of control. He had also made maps directing people looking to relocate but that he felt were incompatible with the ways of this place. Those he directed toward other fledgling villages to which they seemed more suited.

“I didn’t just leave anybody unless they were dangerous or seemed to want to be left,” he said. “But some would obviously make a better fit in other places, and I did what I could to help them find their way.”

One such place, he said, was at Van Buren on the Current river where many had survived, with residents pooling their resources and helping one another through the wild and dark winter. Those people had worked out their differences, most of them, and were growing community gardens and sharing food, led by their church leaders.

“It’s a curious mix, with lots of the more fundamentalist church influence, but they’re mostly focusing on the old-time ways and values, and there are others who lean more toward moderation and are asking their views be respected, too. They’re all working hard and working together, for the moment. No real zealots among them, or if there were any, they’ve either gone somewhere else or don’t have enough support for stirring up trouble. The ministers are working in dialogue, and the people are actually starting to thrive. They, too, are taking in lots of strays. I think there’ll be a good home there for those who prefer a more mainstream Christian community.”

The town of Poplar Bluff was mostly in ruins, but some had survived and were building back. One good sign, he said, was that the area’s community of artists had survived mostly intact and were being a good influence on the town as it grew back. Of course, they were still trying to cope with a very changed landscape. That was true almost everywhere. The social structures that would emerge were still anybody’s guess, he said, and could vary wildly from town to town. Travel between these outposts of quasi-civilization was difficult at best, as many roads were damaged or blocked and most of the bridges were down. But distances and difficulties could be seen as protection as well from some kinds of troubles.

He had not had time to explore all of this new landscape, but he said he found reason to take heart in that several small communities, a half-dozen or more, had rallied usually around some source of supplies and were at least holding their own at establishing some sort of order. But in some places more radical elements had taken charge. Some were selling a hard message of God’s wrath to gain control of what little resources were left. Others were simply taking ownership at gunpoint, creating their own kingdoms, leaving the rest to serve their new masters or starve. At some point, he said, order would need to be restored in the larger area. But not now.

“Speaking of that larger area, there’s something else you should know. The physical changes are far more vast than anyone expected, as I found when I arrived at Poplar Bluff.” He went on, describing the high bluff for which the town was named, where he had first discovered that what had been farmland was now an eastern sea. He made sure of it by tasting and finding it salty. He had seen the sea again while looking southward from a point above where the White River Valley should be, below Mountain Home. The town, though heavily damaged, was still there. But just below it, where there had been mountains, was a rolling surf pebbled with small islands as far as the eye could see. To the west there was also water as far as the eye could see, or so he had heard from people he had met on the trail, but he had no clear idea how far away that was. From the north, no one had yet come. There was only an eerie silence and a feeling of foreboding coming from that direction. Someone would have to go that way and find out the truth of the place, but that was for another day or perhaps another season.

Right now, autumn was upon them, and there were still crops to get in, and more living spaces to build. And what the next winter would bring was anyone’s guess.

“For now, I think we’ll have our hands full taking care of ourselves. That’s why I was very selective in handing out my little maps.” He grinned as he said it but there was a hard glint in his eyes. He had seen more than he was telling, Moira knew. Right now she wasn’t sure she wanted to know more. Tend to the home place, then deal with the rest, she told herself, and look to the tasks at hand. And so the days passed.

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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 Four: Beyond Reach

 

The following Friday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds pretty terrible,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I did say that. So tell me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter 2: Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The security chief made a disparaging sound through his teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus! You’re serious, aren’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“De nada. Vaya con Dios, commadre.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Mom?  Hey, happy Turkey day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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