“Abel, if I’m going to forage for our food we are going to have to go farther away. I’m going to take too much if I only harvest from near the sink and then there won’t be anything for next year for sure. And stuff is getting trampled along the old roads.”
Abel sighed. “Si, it is the same way with the hunting. I think the animals, they stay on the higher ground. I think they sense the people.”
Just the week before we’d discovered that people were so desperate they were moving out of the cities and suburbs on foot and into the public lands and forests, into the old farmlands, looking for whatever scrap of food they could come by. I watched as women cut grass and gave it to their children to eat. It wasn’t for nutrition but to keep them from crying. Their stomachs were full but it was obvious they were still starving to death.
There were no large groups banding together. The largest group we saw was one of that had eight people, only two of them children younger than Daniel’s age. The rest looked to be in their teens to maybe their 40s; it was hard to tell as it was obvious their life was hard and it had aged them. We saw no very young children or elderly people.
Able and I talked about it and he suggested, “The very young and the very old have died or been picked off by predators. Or perhaps anyone that still has such people in their family are not strong enough to strike out and live here in the wilderness what is likely a wilderness to them.”
“Abel, I’m worried about Daniel. If anyone sees him …”
He nodded. “Si, we need to be very careful and explain to him the dangers. I do not think he will run to these interlopers – he seems to fear them – but it is perhaps best if we … if we make him even more afraid of them.”
I shook my head hating the idea but knowing that it might be the only way. “This is so awful. Why is it that we finally see that there are people around only to have to make sure we hide from them.”
It was a rhetorical question. After what we had heard on the radio over the winter and what we had witnessed firsthand after observing the groups from hidden spots we really didn’t have a choice. And if any of them had known about the sink, what it held, it would have been war with us the losers. As it was we decided to move the chickens deeper into the sink. We’d have to be careful that water didn’t back up too high at the bottom but it was at least in a spot they could still get some natural sun.
No matter where we moved them though they still cackled and clucked and crowed. We then decided to move them into the cave. It was work cleaning out a storage room and then running more lighting into the space. It was more work trying to get the stupid birds used to their new home and to keep it clean. The worst though was the smell. After only a couple of days it was enough to make even Abel gag.
“Abel, this isn’t working,” I mumbled through the rag tied around my nose and mouth.
Coughing as we cleaned the room yet again he said, “Si, I noticed. But I think I know a way. I don’t know all the words to explain it but I will draw you a picture.”
We had to create a ventilation system just for the chickens. We would still have to clean the room at least once a week but the fan and duct work would carry the foul air and smells out to the sink where they would disperse into the wind.
Daniel and Dog were fascinated by the project and Daniel at least enjoyed building something for real instead of just with his blocks and pine cones. He was surprisingly adept with the tools and Abel seemed to have even more patience with him than Dad would have under the same circumstances. The only time Abel would take a tool away from Daniel is if he was not paying attention to the safety rules and Daniel soon learned to follow the rules or he couldn’t have fun. Since he wanted to have fun he followed the rules.
It was good that Daniel was learning a new skill. He would need a trade or something when he grew up. We used to think it would be with computers and electronic gizmos but I wasn’t sure what the world was going to look like when and if Heart Rot ever went away. There might not be any computers but there would always be a need to build and fix things and Abel was a good teacher.
Moving the chickens only solved one of the more immediate problems with the people that now wandered in and out of the area. More people in the area meant more competition for the already decreasing food supply. I did notice that most people didn’t seem to really know what they were doing. They would pick grass to eat but overlook the common and much more easily digested dollar weed. They would peel bark off of a wild cherry tree to suck the sap put never even look at the cattails growing in the ditches. They couldn’t even tell the difference between an edible mushroom and a poisonous one and stuffed there face with both as if they didn’t care one way or the other. The first of the dead ones we ran across were from a small group that died an agonizing death after eating the wrong kind.
None of the groups had yet strayed too far off of the road but it was only a matter of time. As the days passed it looked like locusts were picking the byways completely clean; bark was stripped from trees as were the new, tender twigs. The old yards were becoming bald as the grass was pulled to eat, blades to roots. Even thorny vines were pulled off of old fences and consumed. The ones that had died from eating mushrooms weren’t the only ones that we found dead; some plants weren’t meant to be eaten.
One day after being forced to hide yet again I told Abel, “I feel so bad for them but I wish they would go away.”
“Bad enough to bring them here to the cave?”
I immediately leapt to say no but then I realized how that made me sound. Feeling guilty I muttered, “This is awful.”
Trying to comfort me he said, “Querida … you cannot save the world.”
Sighing I told him, “I know that. But I brought you here.”
“Are there others that you would bring here?”
Really giving his question some thought I finally answered, “I do not think I could watch a little kid, or someone like Daniel, wander around alone and helpless. Probably not someone like the Old Woman either.”
“Mi Querido con el corazon blando.”
Knowing I might not like the answer I still asked, “What does that mean?”
Smiling gently he said, “It means that you are my one with the tender heart. I worry for you. You are strong yes, but you have not had to face what is in the world as I have. I pray you never do.” Getting serious he said, “If you help one by showing them what they can eat and what to stay away from then you will have to help them all. None will leave you alone. Eventually there will be so many they will strip the land and we will all starve.”
Wanting to deny it I said, “Maybe not.”
Strangely enough he agreed. “You are right, perhaps not. But are you willing to take that chance? Are you willing to risk Daniel over it?”
I admitted that I was not and we left it at that. But it didn’t change that if I was going to forage for some of our food to make what we had stored last longer we would need to move farther afield. We both worried about leaving the sink unguarded but we had no choice. I think we both also worried about whether if the other people were moving through the area would the Blue Hats be on the move as well. This could spell disaster if they were.
As with nearly everything else Abel and I discussed what we would do if we did see any Blue Hats. “You will run and hide is what you will do,” he said adamantly.
Not ready to just cower in fear I told him, “We need to know what they are doing. Would they still be looking for you? Are they looking for food like we are? Are the Blue Hats even still organized? And you can just get that thought right out of your head Abel, I’m not leaving you behind or letting you leave us. No matter what we are a team.”
“You do not make this easy Day-cee. I will not bring danger on you and Daniel.”
Oh honestly, even at my age I had already learned that guys could be so hard headed. “We are in danger one way or the other. We’ll be in more danger if you strike out on your own. I would prefer for us to stay together in the cave but if you think that isn’t a good idea then I guess we follow where ever you decide to go.”
Ooooo, did he give me a look for that. “That is how do you say … extortion.”
“I don’t know if it is extortion or not but it is most definitely blackmail. Now if you … if you feel like you don’t want to be with us anymore that’s different but …”
Never got to finish what I was saying because we ended up in a small fight. We only stopped when we saw how upset Daniel was getting. Abel through up his hands and complained, “Day-cee … you make my head hurt trying to find all the right words to say to make you understand.”
“So? It’s payback for making my heart hurt thinking of you leaving.”
He followed me into the kitchen and just sort of plunked down on the bench while I finished dinner. Earlier in the day he had brought me the roast from a small doe that he had trapped – she had no fawn and had an injured leg and would not survive a predator’s hunt so I didn’t feel bad. I had cooked it with eastern pine tips. Dad taught me you can also eat spruce tips and fir tips but all I had were the pine tips that day.
When the roast was almost finished I made what Momma had called Mock Bread by taking one cup of fine walnut meal and mixing in a little salt and a whole egg. You make patties out of the sticky dough and cook them on both sides the way you do homemade tortillas.
Abel still finds what I do fascinating and got over his upset with me fast enough as I plated up his and Daniel’s dinner. Blowing on a forkful of hot food and taking a bite he said, “Not even Abuela did things like this. Strange things go into you pot but it always good when it comes out.”
I shrugged, pleased at the implied compliment. “Your grandmother knew her land and I know mine.” After a minute I asked, “Do you miss it? Where you came from?”
After another thoughtful bite he said, “When I first came here all I did was wish to go back. But now … now I am not so sure. Abuelo and Abuela are both gone. I think most of my cousins must be gone as well. The farm though, she never would have been mine; I was just the son of a younger daughter in a family with many sons who had sons of their own.” Shaking his head he said, “I would like to know who is still alive and mourn though those that are gone, but I do not think living there is good for me. Besides, I would not ask you and Daniel to leave your home.”
He said it so matter of factly that it just about took my breath away. More and more often he said things that had me believing that maybe he would stay … not just for a while but perhaps forever. I wanted to believe it but at the same time I was afraid to believe it.
The next day we spent making sure that we had left no sign for other to find their way to the sink and then into the cave. The grass around the hole was carefully stood back up. We had always tried not to leave obvious paths through the tall grass that grew all around and hid the sink. Over the winter the outflow from the spring had changed paths a bit and a small marshy area had grown between the tree line that separated the back fields from the land surrounding the sink. It was not much of an additional barrier but perhaps the mosquitoes that had started to breed in that area would drive people away; they certainly drove us nuts now that it was warm enough for the eggs to hatch. If not for the bats that flew from dusk until dawn every night the blood suckers would have drained us dry several times over.
We also checked the automatic feeder and watering can in the chicken room, made sure the timer was set to give them enough light, and then I packed each of us a bag of just-in-case stuff. Daniel was not as frightened of staying out overnight as he once was but it was best to be prepared so I tucked in a few of his favorite treats in case I needed to bribe him. We were going to be out at least one night, maybe two. I also packed the old fold up hunting wagon to help bring down any forage or game that we might find if we could not carry it in our packs.
Daniel received another reminding of what to do if we met people but he gave us both a look as if to say, “Give me some credit, I’m not stupid.” I think Dad would have been proud to see the changes in him. He hadn’t had a meltdown in months, he still had his texture issues but not to the extreme that he used to, and his memory that had always been sharp now was put to constructive projects and not just random things that meant nothing to him.
We left before the sky lightened, carefully traveling into the BLM land using the setting moon’s light. It had been months since we had gone as high up and as far away as we intended to that day. We passed the old beehives, now rotting where they stood. The bees had long since escaped into the wild. Every so often I would find a bee tree but the honey was very dark and sometimes almost too strong where the only thing the bees had to eat was tree and grass pollens. It was not the light and golden honey from when they dined on the nectar of pretty flowers. Honey was something we still had in abundance so I tried to leave the hives alone for the most part. I never knew from year to year if they would have any food for themselves the so I chose not to steal what they had.
Higher we climbed and it was tough going. Often we would find a trail had been washed out or that we had to break one that had simply grown over so much that it was like travelling through a jungle. The higher we went I noticed that many new trees were coming up, like someone had planted them.
“No Querida, it was the squirrels and other burrowing creatures. The acorns and pine cones must have been great in number and they buried them for their winter forage.”
“I wonder why it isn’t the same down below?”
He shrugged, “Perhaps there is not as many squirrels below. You do keep them few in number with your bow.”
I acknowledged that maybe that was true. “Old habit that I should break I suppose. Momma didn’t like squirrels much. They got into her garden and sometimes would try and nest in the attic. To her they weren’t anything but rats with fluffy tails and since Dad was partial to squirrel stew …”
I could hear Abel smile even if I couldn’t see it. “I am … as you say … partial to squirrel stew as well.”
Daniel chimed in, “Me too. Yum.”
We were all in a good mood. It was good to stretch our legs and get away from the cave for a while. The wind was fresh and blew the remainder of the long winter’s cobwebs out from between our ears. We became even happier to find a cache of acorns that were still good. I gathered a goodly number and put them in a mesh bag to stick in the stream we planned to camp near. The water would wash away the tannin and I would make acorn pancakes that we could smear with wild honey for our breakfast. Dog was as happy as we were but had more sense about it.
We were all amazed that the plants looked so much healthier at the higher altitude. “Why is there so much difference?” I wondered aloud.
Thinking while we all stopped to take a break for a sip of water and a strip of dried meat Abel answered, “Perhaps the super cold weather did kill off the Heart Rot … or at least weakened its hold on the land up here. Or perhaps it is that the plants that live at these altitudes are already more resistant. I am remembering with my eyes and I think it looks much the same as last I was up here, it just looks so much more because of the way down below looks.”
“Maybe a little of both?” I suggested.
He agreed, “Perhaps.” Putting his pack back on he said, “We should keep going. We need to be at the lake before mediodia … before noon.”
I don’t think we had gone a hundred yards more when I saw a good sized clump of oyster mushrooms growing on the side of a tree. I skipped up to Abel and started to point to them when it felt like I’d been kicked in the leg by a mule.