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Posts Tagged ‘Marideth Sisco’

World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Fourteen: The Village It Takes

The explosive “Aaa-choo” that echoed down the hard corridor was followed quickly by a curse, as Moira worked her way down the dusty shelves far back in a little-visited corner of the seed vaults. She knew what she was looking for but damned if she could find it, and the dust was beginning to get into her brain.

Where could all the dust be coming from in what was supposed to be a sealed chamber? Well, come to think of it, it couldn’t be that well sealed or the air would have gone bad years ago. She guessed it could be coming down through the ventilation shafts, although those were supposed to be covered with filters. Maybe the earth tremors that had begun over two years ago had knocked something loose or made a crack somewhere. She would get Steven to look into it. That wasn’t her job or why she was down here.

Somewhere in this ill-assorted mess was a book of such arcane information that she had thought best to keep it tucked away in earlier days, when the vaults had been part of a living history museum and she was simply its chief of operations. She’d been hired based on her knowledge of plants and animals. And yet some plants, in an era that was beginning to seem in many ways far back in archaic times, had been on a forbidden list. You weren’t supposed to know anything about them at all. Don’t ask, don’t tell. No, wait. That was another issue. Never mind.

It seemed now as if nearly everything from those times was swiftly receding into the dim past, so much had the world changed. She expected the same experience was common to everyone. But the book. Where was it? She’d held onto it even though it had been somewhat of an illicit tome in the world that once was. She had been one of those forward looking individuals who thought there was more to be considered about the notorious hemp plant than its reputation as the devil’s weed. For one thing, she’d traveled abroad frequently in her younger days and had seen first hand some of the industrial uses to which it had been put in other, less puritanical cultures. Certainly in the last days of the old world the laws had changed and research had made some forward strides. But much of that new research had not been published, and now probably would never be.

She’d been putting the word out since last year that she was looking for samples of both mature plant material and seeds from as many different varietal sources of hemp as possible. She knew she must locate every possible existing variety for more than one reason. First, with their limited pharmacological capabilities, they needed to make use of all the medicinal plants they could find and learn uses for. Not long before the Change, it had been discovered that different strains of cannabis had different medicinal properties which still needed evaluating. And secondly, she knew that at least one variety of the hemp plant had once been valued primarily for its fiber. In fact, farther to the north and west, over in Amish country and beyond where some of the terrain was flat enough for row crops, hemp had once been widely grown for that purpose. But that was before the cotton, tobacco, and liquor industries had taken aim at its smaller cousin, the marijuana plant, and had pressured Congress into outlawing the cultivation of any variety of cannabis. However, she knew now that the wild hemp still flourishing on roadsides and in waste spaces in areas where it had once been cultivated was far different in character than the shorter, bushy, aromatic specimens that were cultivated for more medicinal and recreational purposes. They needed all of it. Annie had brought a few seeds, but they were old, and only one plant survived, a male that did not produce viable seeds.

Just last week when a stoned-looking young man stopped at the village for supplies, she persuaded him to share with her a small quantity of his obviously recreational variety – because it had seeds.

She’d had the devil of a time convincing him to part with a gram or two, plus some additional seeds, but he had finally capitulated, and now they had on hand enough seeds to produce one strain of the valuable medicinal in quantity sufficient for use and research. The object now was to procure seeds of other varieties, particularly the strains with differing medicinal properties. She was pretty sure she could trade with any surviving farmer to the northwest for the wild hemp, the one used in industry. There were still people alive in that country, for Glen had met them. One day the fiber and the seeds would come. To keep the strains pure, the fiber plant would need to be grown widely separated from its cousins to avoid cross pollination. Perhaps they should just continue to let the plant grow where it was happiest, and establish good trading partners with people in other places who grew different varieties. Ellen the herbalist had claimed most of the resinous plant material obtained from the young man and was busily making tinctures for use as painkillers and tranquilizers. The seeds had been passed on to Toby and a number of other reliable growers to do with as they would. A small portion of plant material was passed to Annie, who was now extracting its resins and trying to track the markers that would make the variety distinguishable from any others.

If they could find reliably useful varieties, most other issues would be moot. For instance, if some folks decided to indulge in a toke or two purely for recreation, it was none of her business. It was hard enough to enforce such rules as were absolutely necessary for survival. She didn’t have time to keep track of everybody’s personal habits so long as they posed no harm to others, and neither did anyone else. Besides, every one of the survivors still carried the immense burden of loss, not just of family, friends and loved ones, but of their entire context as human beings. How could she argue against any remedy for pain, particularly the pain of deep grief and heartache? But now she was drifting, and she must keep on track.

What she needed desperately, and as soon as possible, was information on how the plants of the fiber-producing hemp could be processed into the goods and materials that were rapidly becoming rare commodities in this isolated culture. Paper, for one thing. And rope. And door mats, shoes, baskets, clothing. Goddess, the list was endless. Leather served for some purposes but was itself in short supply. Split white oak would do for durable baskets but had little tensile strength. She had begun her dusty search when she’d remembered reading that the oil extracted from hemp seed was extremely versatile and easily processed into a variety of fuels and lubricants, including lamp oil.

In just these past year and some months some things once thought crucial to life were gone, used up, and no replacement had been found that could be produced in sufficient quantity. They’d soon be reduced to burning animal fat for light if nothing else could be found. The small amount of electricity from the mill pond generator was providing some comforts for now, but even at its peak it could supply only minimal amounts beyond what was needed to keep the vaults dry and evenly heated.

She had been both generous and practical, she thought, in allowing its use to drive power tools used in the construction of housing for the rapidly growing community. They might as well use the tools, and use them up, while there was power to spare, she reasoned. After all, both the tools and the generator would wear down and then wear out over time. Once they were gone, there might well be no replacing them. They were merely buying time and sparing these unintentional pioneers some physical effort as they struggled to adjust to a world of vastly different and far fewer resources. From here on, there seemed very limited potential for the kind of growth that was once called “progress.”
Fortunately, those long-silent folks who had earlier supplied her with the “doomsday stash” had sent numerous large cartons of rechargeable batteries, and more of lightweight, flexible solar panels. Those too would be useful for their limited lifespan as would, eventually, the still half-full carton of once cheap and now priceless butane cigarette lighters.

Unfortunately, some of the settlers at Falling Spring hadn’t figured out the need to be frugal, or perhaps were still in denial. It was only through her dogged determination and occasional threats that the more short-sighted of the citizenry hadn’t decided to just chuck the preservation of the vitally important seed stocks in favor of holding on just a little longer to that last precious symbol of their former lives — electric light. Never mind that the supply of light bulbs was dwindling, too, and there was no conceivable way at this point in the new world’s evolution to make more. Goddess, what primeval forces were at work. She was seeing deeply what fear was driving them all, to be without a way to light the darkness. No wonder they panicked so easily when reminded that the age of cheap and plentiful electric power had simply ended. Well, she meant to fix that problem for good and all, if she could only find that damned book!

An hour later she had found helpful instructions on brewing homemade beer, making vinegar from apples, basic soap making, leather tanning, and fermenting techniques. And a recipe for a variety of intoxicating beverages, including raspberry mead, of all things. All useful information, but not what she sought. She tried to remember where she had last seen the text on hemp production and processing.
Wait a minute. That’s right. It was a reference book, not something from popular culture. She’d come across it at the university library’s annual book sale while still in grad school and had been intrigued enough to carry it home. She’d paid something like a quarter for it, she remembered. Now, she thought, it was priceless. It was also likely to be stored with the rest of her ag reference books on a shelf in her bedroom upstairs. Oh, great. She’d spent a morning down here in the dust for nothing.

Well, not quite, she thought with a grin. She’d found the beer-making book. What they’d managed so far was drinkable, more or less, but that’s all. Their crop of barley had been meager since it wasn’t really suited to the local climate. Maybe they could substitute wheat for part of the malt and still get something drinkable – if the wheat harvest was sufficient. It was worth a try. She’d drop that book by Lon Brixey’s cabin down next to the mill. An African American carpenter and cabinetmaker by trade before the Change, and one of the latest arrivals, he’d been trying to get the woodright’s shop, powered by the mill wheel and used by the house builders, developed into a better design so he could make more than lumber. He was talking about making, among other things, barrels and casks for storage vessels. He’d also frequently expressed serious displeasure at the mediocre quality of the beer and the few fruit wines they’d managed to produce. If he wasn’t interested in developing the craft of beermaking, she’d bet he’d find someone who was.

Someone overhearing her thoughts might have thought her a little too focused on the production of addictive substances, she realized with a grin. But she knew what her growing extended family was going through in its struggle to adjust to this new and difficult life. If she could spare any of them an ounce of pain and make their daily lives smoother, that would be just fine with her.

She bypassed the energy-sucking freight elevator and headed for the stairs. She was stronger than she’d been in years from the physical labor required to stay abreast of her duties and jogged easily up the stairs from the vaults, brushed the dust from her clothes, and had another sneezing fit at the top. When she entered her apartment by the back door, the book was just where she’d thought it might be, tucked away right between chickens and grains on a closet shelf.

She leafed through its introductory pages as she strolled absently out of her personal quarters, across the hall, and into the cavernous room that had once been the exhibit space of the visitor center, now converted to use as an infirmary and for other purposes. Most of the equipment in the hall, including the antique tools and implements on display, had long since been scavenged for direct use or as patterns to copy, their once-obsolete designs having suddenly become essential again. She looked up, hearing the screech of a nail being pulled through wood, and found Steven dismantling one of the last remaining tall display cases. It was on its side with its front open, the heavy glass panels from it and two other cases leaning against a nearby wall.

“What’s going on, my good man?” she asked, moderating her tone as she noted a small, moccasined foot protruding from what she’d thought was a pile of rags. “I see you’ve stolen my son.” Jared, her adopted firstborn, was just now old enough to escape from the village nursery so long as he had supervision. He was becoming Steven’s frequent companion on days when his tasks posed no danger, like today.

Steven nodded and smiled. “I thought I’d give the nannymamas a break for a few hours. I know people describe his kind of energy as ‘all boy,’ but I swear, this one seems to be about a boy and a half.” He smiled as he stood and put out an arm to pull her to him. They embraced awkwardly, each unwilling to put down their tools — hers the book and his a pry bar. Exchanging smiles of easy affection, they held each other a moment and then stepped apart.

She pretended an official tone as she demanded, “And what mischief are you up to today?”

“I’m commandeering these articles for use in the greater plan, oh wise and generous one,” he said, affecting a similarly officious tone and saluting with the pry bar. There appeared to be more than one mischievous child in the room.

“In other words, you’re absconding with more loot from my place to put to some questionable purpose of your own,” she returned.

“That’s it, exactly,” he said with a grin, looking pleased with himself. “The glass will make some great windows for the school, and these cases will hold lots of books and supplies, once I’ve put in some sturdier shelves. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“Not a bit, especially since I’ll end up with more of this great big room so its other endeavors can expand and offer more space for essential services. The theater is great for meetings. We can seat everyone and more in that space,” she said, gesturing toward the adjoining room.

“This room has the capacity to become a medical center of sorts. Annie has her lab, Nurse Alice has her clinic, and Ellen is developing a proper herbary to process and store medicinals in what used to be the other restroom and the janitor’s closet inside. They all seem to get along well enough, and are learning a great deal from each other.”

Steven commended her farsightedness, but she demurred.

“ It had to happen. At first, I was obsessed with keeping this whole facility, excepting Annie’s lab and the warehouse, as some kind of last remnant of the world before. But I’m over it. I don’t really need anything in here for me beyond my apartment. I do want to hold onto that, because I really think I’d like to have another child, once this guy’s a little farther along. I was against it at first, because my job gives me little time to spare caring for an infant. But now that the nannymamas have organized, that’s not so much of an issue. I’d have the benefit of those extra hands. But what we really need” she said, shifting gears, “is a community health, science, and research center. And what we don’t need is another structure to build. So I’m thinking this is it.”

“Yeah. Like a Keep,” he said and grinned, for everyone called it that, but she still found it awkward.

Yeah, kinda,” she agreed. “I’m beginning to see that.”

“Well, don’t see it too clearly. There’s bound to be another meeting,” he said and made a face.

“Oh, Goddess bless us, not that,” she groaned. They laughed, and she returned to her previous focus. “Well, hey, we’re going to have to do that anyway pretty soon, because I’ve just now found us the answer to most of life’s biggest problems.” She held up the book and he read its title.

“What’s this? ‘Hemp Production and Processes?’ Oh, right. You’re going to get us all so stoned we don’t give a rip for life’s biggest problems, is that it? Some answer.”

She held the book up and shook it under his nose, a menacing look on her face. “No,” she hissed. “I’m gonna take this stuff and grow you a shirt – and some tow ropes, and maybe some house paint, and a goddamn night light, you scientifically challenged woofer. You know what this means? We work out how to break this stuff down on a large scale into its component parts and we have a manufacturing base. We have raw materials for some of the most basic goods of civilized life. It’s all right here, in this one amazing plant.

“And I’m not blowing smoke, buddy. Did you know that this fiber is, ounce for ounce, stronger than steel? We can make ropes and cables and baskets and paper and clothing, plus lubricants and oils for nearly every use imaginable. We can cook with it and light our houses at night. This stuff is going to save our asses, Steven. No kidding. I’m certain of it.”

“Wow. Okay then, I guess I’m impressed,” he said, sobering. “So how do we go about it? How do we get these wonders to happen?”
She heaved a sigh. “Let’s save that for the meeting. I need to bone up on my subject matter some more before I go blowing about it like this before an audience. But I’m glad you said ‘we,’” she said with satisfaction. “If we can locate the right seeds, I’m sure we can get the stuff to grow. But then to learn the refining processes, to work it into usable forms, I’m going to need the right implements, including some pretty sophisticated machinery. Warning’s fair – I’m probably going to be keeping your forges hot all summer.” She gave him a wicked grin, which he answered with eyebrows raised.

“Oo, baby, you know what I like,” he quoted the long-ago popular song. They shared another hug and a chuckle, and he returned to his task. Moira tiptoed out, leaving Jared to his nap, and found a sunny corner outside, next to the greenhouse and out of the wind, where she settled down to read everything she could squeeze out of this little book about industrial hemp. It was going to be their salvation. She just knew it.

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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 Nine: Assembling A Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Eight: From the Ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen shook her head, smiling wryly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, Glen, you want some coffee?”

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Seven: Unalterable Acts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Six: The Devil in the Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paranoid,” she whispered to herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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