I never figured out exactly what was out of whack with my thigh, all I know is that it hurt badly and it took four times as long to get back to the sink as it should have. It was over a week before I could move around enough to get out of the cave once I had climbed down into it. I had to leave the eggs because I couldn’t even get out well enough to collect them and a couple of the stupid hens went broody.
I figured some of the older hens would need to be culled before the cold weather came back so I let them have what they wanted and eventually we had a bunch of yellow puff balls to look after on top of everything else. That meant more work, primarily in building them their own little run that was predator proof, but I guess it was worth it … especially as I remember the look on Daniel’s face as he sat, fascinated by them.
Lucky for me I was finally completely healed and was able to start pulling all of the grass seed heads we could find to add to the chickens’ own foraging efforts. Lucky too, in a way, that that summer was also a grasshopper summer. The chickens had all of the protein they could catch and boy, were they funny. Every once in a while more than one chicken would go after the same hopper and the silly things would plow into one another. Once a whole bunch of them spotted the same grasshopper at the same time and when they were finished it looked like a multi-car pileup; they were all squawking and complaining as they got themselves untangled and straightened their feathers out. Both Daniel and I laughed a long time. It felt good.
Daniel and I were very careful after running into the old woman and the rest of those people … although I’ll be honest and admit that in hindsight I really never thought of the Blue Hats as “people” but as monsters, monsters that could be done away with without thought or consequences.
After seeing people for the first time in so long, and having it be the kind of encounter that it was, I wondered whether we should go out anymore at all. After thinking it through however I knew that really wasn’t feasible. I wasn’t going to let one bad experience lock us up in the cave for the rest of our lives. So slowly, as my leg healed and the chicken chores were complete, we ventured out exploring again … but not near that valley that I had told the old woman about and not to the campgrounds. I wasn’t going to let the Blue Hats win, but I wasn’t going to be foolish either.
A part of me was terribly curious about the old woman and the young man with her. Where did they come from? I didn’t recognize them as being from around here. How had they survived? I didn’t get the impression that they had a place like we did to hole up in. Why were the Blue Hats after them? It just seemed awful coincidental that they had been found out like they had.
Every once in a while I would find signs that someone had been around deeper in the BLM area. Freshly cut cattail sprouts … one of the forage items that still were making what could be eaten … was the first time I really noticed but once I’d seen that I started looking around more carefully. There were flat prints in dusty spots, similar to Daniel’s moccasins but too large to be his and I still had tread prints on my shoes. I’d see string or hair caught on branches and bushes. We found the skeleton of an animal that was too neatly laid out to have been done by another animal predator. And every once in a while I’d get jumpy because I swear it would feel like we were being watched. When I would get that feeling … or Daniel would … we faded into the underbrush as quickly as we could and then took a long and winding path back to the sink and remained there for a couple of days to be on the safe side.
Towards the end of summer I took a good, long look at the food we had remaining in the cave. By my reckoning when we first went into the cave there was food for five people for over three years but we didn’t have five people because my parents had been killed and Jeff left shortly after that never to return. That meant that from near the beginning we had nearly eight years of food storage for just Daniel and I. I was thirteen and several months when we went into the cave and I turned fifteen early in July of that summer making it about a year and a half since our world had gone all messed up. I figured between what we grew in the grow rooms and what forage I managed to bring in over the past year we still had around seven years of food.
I could have given up the grow rooms, not bothered with the chickens, and forgotten about foraging and still been able to put a decent meal together for the two of us … for a while. The problem was we just didn’t know how long that Heart Rot was going to be around and even after it left – if it left – how long it would take to start producing enough food to feed us again. And a lot of the long term storage stuff that Daddy had squirreled away was powdered, dried, and strictly staple type ingredients. There was a lot of rice, grains, and beans but that doesn’t make for very interesting meals if you don’t have other stuff to add in or at least to vary the flavor with. So I decided that even if things started looking like they were getting better, and especially if they did not, we would continue the grow rooms and the chickens, but we’d also continue to forage for what we could.
It turned out we were the only ones though. As the summer turned into autumn Daniel and I had a few close encounters. Along the road the home place faced … though it wasn’t easy to even see the old road top anymore between the grasses and the tree debris … we saw what looked like a gypsy group. I don’t mean they looked like gypsies exactly, they just seemed to live like them.
They had what looked like rickshaws – some pulled by hand and some by pedal powered wheels – that they used as wagons for their personal items. There were more adults than children and none of them looked healthy or happy. If I had to pick an emotion they looked resigned but intent. They didn’t make much noise though they made more than Daniel and I did and that is how we avoided running into them as I had been out looking for mints and other greens to bring back to the sink to dry for winter storage.
Much to my personal displeasure they found the walnut tree next to the road that I’d been watching over and they stripped it bare, taking even the greenest nuts not out of their husks. One woman fell down crying and thanking God. I was so angry that I looked up where God is supposed to be and asked why he’d given those walnuts to them when I’d been the one taking care of it since last autumn. It just didn’t seem fair. I didn’t get an answer but maybe a non-answer was still an answer in a way. Maybe it was just none of my business why He did some of the things He did them. And besides, there were other nut trees in the area, that one had just been fuller of nuts than the others had.
Nuts were an important part of my plan. They provided fats and oils that some of the powdered and dried foods didn’t. They also were full of protein and that was important because Daniel and I used our muscles a lot. Most importantly when I couldn’t get Daniel to eat anything else I could always get him to eat a nut butter sandwich. There was peanut butter powder in the big cans of storage foods but it wasn’t the same as making fresh, creamy nut butter like I could with nuts that we foraged.
I eventually was able to really stock up on nuts by spending a couple of weeks just working Daniel and me to pieces. And it seemed to take twice as long to do it too because the nuts were half the size they normally were.
In my mind we couldn’t afford to let anyone else have any more of “our” food. I wouldn’t say we covered every acre in the BLM but we covered every one that we could and wound up with bushels and bushels of nuts that I left in the shell and stored in the coldest part of the cave. At night while Daniel played I would spend some time cracking nuts to get at the meats inside before starting work on the bottomless basket of sewing and mending. That basket was the bane of my existence; no sooner would I imagine that I was nearly the end of the pile when I’d find a bunch of new stuff that needed to go into the basket. I began to wonder if I would have enough thread and yarn to keep up with the work that had to be done to keep us in clothes and under things. Thread and yarn wasn’t the only things that I started to worry about running out of.
It was a crisp, late October morning and Daniel was so frisky that I completely gave up on the chores I had planned for that day and decided we might as well go on another exploring run. We’d pretty much exhausted the nearest roads and the area immediately surrounding the sink so I decided before it got really cold to go deeper into the BLM than we ever had. I stuffed our packs with lots of in-case stuff and enough rations to last us in case we got caught out overnight for some reason. I didn’t like it when that happened any more than Daniel did but it did happen on occasion. I made sure everything was locked up and taken care of and we headed off into the forest.
I was doing my best to make notes on any potentially useful sights when we came across them. I also tried to make note of the landmarks so that we could make it home. I had forced myself to learn to navigate with a compass by reading a book in Dad’s library but Daniel either wouldn’t or couldn’t make heads or tails of it so it was just easier to point out landmarks to him. He had a head for things like that so it worked out to both of our advantage.
Further and further we went into the unexplored territory. This area was very different from the area of the BLM around the sink. The elevation was higher so it was cooler and that also meant that the trees and plants were different too. I found stuff in that area that I hadn’t seen since spring time down near the sink. And there were plenty of conifers up there and that meant cones so of course we wound up picking up a back of them.
Daniel didn’t enjoy arts and crafts very much but he loved to build things. Even though a lot of people would have thought him too old for it, he still played for hours with blocks, Lincoln Logs, and lego blocks. He also like to play with pine cones and the like. He would build really strange looking structures with them, or imagine them to be things they weren’t such as cars, but his favorite thing of all was to turn them into animals like cows, dogs, goats, and chickens by attaching little sticks for legs and leaves for ears. The really small cedar cones he would sometimes create baby chicks out of.
The biggest difference between that area of the BLM and where we normally explored was the general terrain and the lack of real trails. I was breaking a path through some underbrush when my hair snagged on some dry branches. Within a step my bandana had been ripped off and the clip I used to keep my braid up off my neck had opened. As my braid fell out of the clip the twigs of the limb I got hung up in somehow tangled even worse in my rubber band and then pulled it off the end of my hair.
There is very little worse that getting tangled up in the underbrush. It is why I kept my long hair braided and tucked up under a bandana in the first place … not to mention it helped so that I wasn’t constantly have to wash dirt and debris out of my hair. Daniel had finally let me keep his hair cut short so long as I was quick and only used scissors and not the clippers that buzzed near his ears.
Losing my patience I yanked the rubber band without thinking about anything except putting it back in my hair before I had to completely re-braid everything. But when I pulled the rubber band popped and broke. I must have stood looking at the now useless piece of elastic for thirty seconds before sitting down and trying not to cry like a baby.
“Aw Dacey, don’t cry,” Daniel tried to console me. He didn’t understand why I was upset but he knew that I was and just wanted to comfort me the way that I would do the same for him.
“I’m not going to cry Daniel but that was my last rubber band. Now how am I supposed to keep my hair from going all over the place?” I looked at Daniel but he wasn’t looking at me, but behind me.
Feeling a sudden panic I turned, bringing up the cross bow at the same time. There stood the young man with the straight, dark hair. He stood very still and then slowly raised his hands to show he had no weapon in them. Still moving slowly he reached in his pocket and pulled something out. It wasn’t a gun; it was a piece of string that looked a lot like the leather laces out of my father’s work boots.
He stretched out his hand and tried to give me the piece of shoe lace. I just looked at it, suspicious that he was trying to make me put the crossbow down.
“Dacey, he wants you to take it.”
“I know. I just don’t know why.”
“Because you were crying about your hair.”
“I was not crying.”
“Yes you were.”
“No I wasn’t …,” I started to argue and that’s when I noticed that the young man, I remembered the old woman had called him Abel, was smiling like something was funny but sad at the same time. I could tell that whatever he was feeling was genuine and despite my own commonsense I lowered the crossbow.
I could tell right away that I’d surprised him from the way he blinked his eyes and raised his eyebrows. I shrugged and said, “I’ve seen you fight. If you meant us harm I guess you could have snuck up on us and had your way without going to all this trouble and letting me hold a bolt on you.”
He slowly lowered his hands and shrugged in response.
“Where’s the cranky old lady?” Daniel asked before I could.
Abel just shook his head as he grinned. I said, “Please excuse him, uh …” but I wasn’t sure how to finish what I’d been trying to say.
Abel wasn’t offended, you could tell by the real humor still in his eyes but he didn’t say anything either. He did make a chirping noise with his lips and then the dog came out of the bushes. I stiffened up at the sight of her but all Daniel remembered was the wet nose tickles that she had given to him.
“Dog! Look Dacey it’s the dog.” The dog looked as thrilled to see Daniel as he was to see her. After looking at me to make sure it was OK, Abel made another noise and the dog then went up to Daniel to sniff him again and before long they were both sitting on the ground making a complete mess of themselves. Even with the lack of a tail I could tell that the dog was having a blast; her back end was wiggling ninety to nothing.
Obviously this was going to take some time so Abel swept off a rock and then pointed to me and then to the rock like I was supposed to sit. It was kind of funny but kind of sweet too. No one but my dad had ever pulled out a chair for me to sit on but this felt like the same kind of thing. After I had sat down and Abel had taken the time to look around a bit he sat too on the ground near my feet.
“Your name’s Abel, right?” I asked.
He looked up at me and after a brief hesitation nodded. I was going to ask him something else but Daniel piped up, “Dacey, I’m hungry and so is dog. Can we have lunch now?”
My breath caught. Both the dog and the young man were rail thin. I was in the middle of figuring out what to say when Abel pulled a hunk of raw hide out of his pocket and tossed it to the dog who snatched it out of the air and walked off a few feet to start chewing on it.
“Daniel,” I told my brother. “The dog is eating so don’t bother her. You know how you don’t like me messing with your food while you’re eating.”
Once Daniel had nodded I pulled off my pack and handed him a ham sandwich with sprouts hanging out of the sides. Abel eyes got big as dinner plates. I’d made four sandwiches and I knew it wasn’t going to strain us any to share with him.
“Here,” I said trying to hand him one.
He backed up like I was trying to feed him poison or something. “Knock it off; it’s just a ham sandwich. It’s not a snake, it won’t bite you.”
I could tell he wanted one the way his eyes were glued to my hand and I could also see his mouth was watering so much there was spit in the corner of his lips. But he just shook his head and pointed at the sandwich then at me.
I don’t know what it is about Abel. He never said a word yet it was like his thoughts were running in plain English right across his face. He wasn’t going to take food away from me.
I don’t think there is anything worse than when a boy sets his mind to be stubborn. Abel, now that I’d gotten a good look at him, appeared to be about Jeff’s age or maybe a little older. His beard was heavy but the hair was soft and fine like he hadn’t been shaving for long before he let it start to grow. It was also a little thin in places like his face wasn’t all filled in yet. I figured that was about like it was with my legs. It used to be only the front of my legs really needed to be shaved but I stopped bothering with it because it was such a pain and no one but Daniel to see anyway and now all my legs are just about as hairy as a guys would have been had there been any guys around wearing shorts for me to look at. Most girls shave their legs before guys have to shave their faces. All of that together is what made me think he couldn’t have been much past 20 years old.
Figuring that out didn’t help me convince him to take the sandwich so I tried to use psychology since it sometimes worked with Daniel.
“I’m not giving you the sandwich. It’s a trade. You gave me the string to tie my braid and since I want to keep the string I have to trade you something for it.”
That fell as flat as the cake that Daniel slammed the oven door on. The look on his face said that I was cracked if I thought he was going to fall for that one so I upped the ante.
“OK, how about you let my brother play with your dog for a little bit and I keep the string … but you get the sandwich.”
It wasn’t working and now I was getting hungry. “Don’t be a blockhead. Look, I’ve got a sandwich for me and Daniel is eating just fine. If Daniel wasn’t taken care of I wouldn’t offer to trade you the sandwich. Take the extra one already before I get cranky.”
Abel looked at me like I’d lost my mind but he must have seen something on my face. It was Daniel that sealed the deal however. “Abel, she really can get cranky if you don’t mind her. Eat the sandwich and she’ll stop growling.”
I turned a sharp look on Daniel just about to let him know how much I didn’t appreciate his help with a funny sound started coming from Abel. I turned back quick to look at him and saw that he was laughing but only letting little bits of air out at a time.
“Boys,” I said in disgust which only seemed to make Abel trying not to laugh even more.
I held out the sandwich to him after proving that I did indeed have one for myself and Abel gingerly reached for it. He looked at it and smelled it and then gently bit into it.
“See, I told you that you bite the sandwich the sandwich doesn’t bite you,” I told him satisfied that I’d finally gotten my way.
It was nice just sitting there. I was full and Daniel was as well as no amount of begging on my part would get him to eat the last corner of his sandwich so I wrapped it up knowing he’d probably eat it on the way back to the sink. I looked up and saw that we’d have to start heading back if we were to make it home before dark but it was hard to get up the will for what had to be.
All of a sudden the dog stopped playing with Daniel and got real stiff legged looking up the trail from where Abel had come from. Abel too had gone all strange. He turned to look at Daniel and I and then all but picked up Daniel and sent him down the mountain with a push. Me he grabbed and put my pack in my arms and shoved me down towards Daniel more roughly and when I would have opened my mouth he jerked his hand across his throat in an obvious sign for silence.
The pace he was moving wasn’t safe but he kept both Daniel and I upright and moving down away from whatever had set the dog off and then suddenly he jerked us off the rudimentary trail and through some boulders and into a depression where he had us lie prone; even the dog was belly down in the concave surface of the ground.
Suddenly Abel had a knife … and doggone big one too … in his hand and was poised to move. Then I heard it too, several people moving down the path muttering quietly in some language I didn’t recognize. And then I saw them … more Blue Hats.
I put my crossbow to the ready but a lightweight hand across mine was Abel’s way of telling me not to jump the gun. These men were as thin as Abel but not as raggedy. There equipment was used but in good shape, similar to the other group of Blue Hats from months back but that’s where the similarities ended. These men didn’t have the additional scarves on their heads and they weren’t swarthy. In all honesty they reminded me of the big blonde bad guy from the first Indiana Jones movie or the Russian boxer in that Rocky movie series that Dad had enjoyed watching over and over again. The language they spoke, the few words I caught, was different as well. I got the impression that even though the two groups of Blue Hats wore the same uniform they were somehow distinct and not necessarily on the same side.
It was thirty minutes before Abel would allow us to get up and that only after he’d gotten up himself and worked his way out to the goat trail we had been on to make sure the Blue Hats were really gone.
I could tell that Abel was torn. He wanted to get away as soon as possible which meant us going our own ways, but our way home would take us down the same path that the Blue Hats had gone. He opened his mouth a couple of times like he was going to speak and though I was eager to hear a word actually come out of his mouth I was in charge of Daniel and me, not him.
“Give me a sec to think,” I told him while looking around and pulling out my compass. “OK, just tell me … the trail Y down below us … does it have a switchback that turns on itself?”
He didn’t seem to understand what I was asking so I drew a picture in the dirt. When he understood what I was asking he nodded.
“Which branch of the Y did the Blue Hats take?” He drew his own diagram for me.
“OK, no problem. We won’t cross paths with them. Thanks for the hair tie.”
I made get up and get Daniel ready for the trail home but as I stood Abel grabbed my upper arm. I jumped and looked at him. He slowly turned loose of me and nodded his head. He had to chirp for the dog twice before it would leave Daniel’s side. It somehow made it harder when Daniel said, “Next time we need to bring doggy food Dacey.”
We made it home without incident but it did take longer than I had originally planned and Daniel was exhausted. The reason why it took so long is because I took every opportunity to turn anyone following us around.
Over the next several days I couldn’t get the whole thing out of my head. Some things just kept jumping out at me. One, I’d never heard Abel’s voice yet I had the feeling that he could speak; it felt more like he was choosing not to. Two, where was the old woman that had been with him before? Three, in all the time since Daniel and I had gone into hiding we’d only seen Blue Hats twice and both times were when we had also met seen Abel. Maybe twice was just a coincidence but it seemed a pretty strange one if it was.
November came in with a vengeance. The first week was nothing but cold, hard rain. Dad had dried the bottom of the sink out using a French drain system and by redirecting the spring runoff to a stream but nothing could keep up with the rain we had that week. Everything was soaked and overflowing. When I finally braved the cold to get out for a few moments it was to find that the stream had turned into a river and even backed up in places to create a wide, shallow miniature lake. Investigating to see why the stream was backing up I found a tree had fallen over and created a kind of dam. It was not fun trying to clear the blockage. The water and mud were as cold as ice and I was exhausted by the time I finally sawed and chopped through the tree in two different places so I could take out of chunk for the water to flow through.
And then suddenly it was the middle of November and it warmed up like crazy. And with the warm weather and all of the standing water the mosquitoes tried to hatch enough of themselves to conquer the world. It was absolutely awful. Even the chickens seemed miserable and listless from the attacks of the little bloodsuckers. By the end of November it had turned cold again which was a blessed relief, especially the morning we woke up to a frost which meant the end of this year’s crop of flying leeches.
Daniel and I had been cooped up for nearly a month and we were both just itching to get out and about again. We packed up and without even talking about it we both set off for the area we’d met Abel in. But when we started to climb I began to rethink our path. It wasn’t just a little cool; even with the sun full on us it was downright cold enough to take your breath away.
In the cold, crisp air sound seemed to carry forever … or it should have. There were no sounds that day. Daniel was the first to notice it. He started crowding me on the trail and I turned to ask him to be careful when I saw his face. I immediately pulled us both off the trail and whispered, “Daniel, what’s wrong?”
“Something bad is happening.”
Like I said, Daniel has a sixth sense about things to take make up for the senses that were affected by his autism. “Something bad?”
“Nobody is making noise Dacey. They are being quiet and hiding out.”
That’s when I noticed that the animal sounds had disappeared after we had turned the bend in the trail.
“Is it close?”
“It’s up there.”
“Up where we have to go.”
“We don’t have to go anyplace Daniel. If there is danger we’ll go home,” I told him.
“No. No we have to go. We have to make sure Abel and Dog are OK.”
“NO!” Daniel startled me. It was only rarely that he threw a tantrum anymore. “We have to Dacey … we have to.” But the way he said it I wasn’t too sure he was very happy about saying it.
He would have taken off without me if I hadn’t gone along. He was getting too big for me to just pick up and drag him to make him do what I wanted him to do. And his insistence on knowing what was happening had infected me. We continued up the trail but much more cautiously; and a good thing too because as soon as we turned another bend we found Dog lying on the trail.
Daniel tried to run to Dog but I held him back; I wasn’t sure how the injured dog would react. I eased up and the dog never moved; she was breathing but unconscious and there was a bloody gash on her head. I picked the animal up and took her off of the trail then looked at Daniel.
“Daniel this is important … very, very important. I want you to stay here and not make any noise. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“We have to take care of Dog.”
“We’ll do our best but I have to see … see …”
“If Abel is like Dog?”
“Yes. Now what did I tell you?”
“You said to stay here with Dog and not make any noise and that you’d come back for us.”
I didn’t like leaving Daniel but something pulled me onwards and upwards. I was about twenty yards further up the trail and thinking of turning around when there was a scream, then another, then another all followed by rough male laughter.
After the last encounter with Abel I decided the crossbow wasn’t enough. I had gotten out some of the guns that Dad had taught me to shoot with and then cleaned them and practiced dry shooting until I was sure that I knew what I was doing. The rifle I had in my hand was the one that he’d used to kill the hogs and that he’d used for big game hunting.
I eased up the path and then stepped off of it to crawl up to the ridge that gave me a vantage of the incline where I saw them down in a little cul de sac looking spot in the trail. It only took me a moment to figure out what I was seeing but it took longer to let my brain admit it.
A little away from a group of people an old woman was on the ground, dead eyes staring at the gray sky above. I was pretty sure that it was the same old woman but whether it was or wasn’t didn’t make a hill of beans since she’d already passed. What was important was the man that was tied face forward to a tree and what the other men were doing to him.
Four men were laughing and … and cursing I guess as it was hard to tell since it wasn’t in English. They had a small fire and they’d take a stick out of the fire, shake the flames out leaving a red hot tip that they would then press against the man’s back. That man was Abel.