Abel groaned like he was sorry he had brought it up then asked, “Then what were you thinking?”
“Just that you can’t be a tyrant if you don’t have anyone to push around.”
Relieved that I wasn’t talking about blowing something up or any other kind of mischief Abel thought about that for a moment and then said, “Ah … I understand now. Yes, that is why Hakim is angry, that people are leaving … escaping him. He would rather they starve where they are, fear him, and be subject to his rages than leave so that there would be fewer people to feed and therefore less reason for him to rage.”
I was confused though so I asked, “But why do it like this? I mean, if people run from him they’ll say how big and bad he is and his reputation will get bigger. Right? Isn’t that what he wants? To be all big and bad and have everyone know it?”
Abel shook his head, “No Day-cee. Just because I say that Hakim is not as strong a leader as he thinks he is does not mean he is stupid. He must have some idea of his … his …limitaciones … how far he can stretch his resources. He only has so many men under his command … the original Peacekeepers … and he probably wonders of their loyalty. Of that number he probably only trusts a few, maybe none. I took many of them away from him, some have probably run away, and others have been killed by fighting like we have seen up on the mountain. He probably dreams nightly of being assassinated as he did to Sevmire.”
He wasn’t bragging about the men he’d killed, just stating a fact. I’m glad that he didn’t gloat because I still felt bad about the different men that I’d killed over the months. Even if it was a them-or-me situation I didn’t like to think about it too much.
Abel stopped on the path and faced me. “Day-cee, I do not wish to do mischief to Hakim’s men.”
Rolling my eyes and smiling to try and tease him out of his worry I said, “I didn’t say anything. Did I? I don’t know why you would even think that.”
I got a small smile. “I don’t know, you have certainly given me no reason to think such things.” A little more seriously he said, “Querida I would not blame you if you did want to do such things. It is not that I do not want to do such as well but it is that it is not a good idea to do it in this area. If Hakim feels threatened he will take greater interest and that we do not need. I do not wish a siege to be laid against us confining us in the cave. It is too dangerous. We have a great many things thanks to your padre but to be trapped … it is a bad thing to have happen.”
Not liking that scenario at all I said, “No, we definitely don’t want someone to start snooping around here. But we do need to know if Hakim has patrols in this area.”
The next week and a half we tried to return to our normal schedule. I was relieved when Daniel was able to settle down a lot; he really doesn’t do well when things are all at sixes and sevens. I was able to get caught up on chores like laundry and making over and repairing our clothes. Abel went scouting every day to see whether we had company in the area or not.
He saw people four days running – regular folks and Blue Hats and then things seemed to just dry up. There were no scavenging groups, no single travelers, and none of Hakim’s people. We were relieved but it was a mystery too. Some mysteries I could do without as I had enough to figure out on my plate already.
When Abel was away from the cave I would work on a pair of leather knee boots for him. The leather was some buckskin that he had tanned and stretched, but it was from a buck that I had gotten with my bow. His grandfather and uncles had taught him how to do process the leather so that it could be sold at auction to vendors from the city. I knew how to stretch hides with the hair on; Abel could take the hair off without nicking it all to pieces like I did. I decided to make the boots special by dying them forest camouflage using shoe polish that had been thinned with alcohol and they came out pretty well. I planned to surprise him with them when I was completely finished.
One day Abel came home early and caught me at it. They dye smell was strong so I was doing it outside the cave where the breeze could carry most of it away. Abel came down the steps to find me working on the ledge. Being playful he teased, “Querida, tell me that is not dinner.”
“Ha … ha … very funny. I wasn’t the one that smoked up the living quarters trying to reheat some biscuits.”
He had the grace to blush and say, “You know I meant no harm. You are not going to make me cook again?”
I had to laugh at the puppy dog face he made. “No … but only because I’m hungry and don’t feel like eating ashes for dinner.”
We both laughed and I noticed he was in a good mood for some reason but before I could ask he asked me, “What is that you are doing?”
I shrugged. “You might as well see since you need to try them on tonight before I cut laces for them. Here, sit down and try that other one on; this one is still wet.”
Instead of sitting down he just stood there holding the boot. Trying to not let my hurt feelings show I shrugged and said casually, “You know, you don’t have to wear them. I just thought that you could use another pair. The boots you came in are falling apart and the ones you took from the Blue Hat aren’t much better and …”
He bent down and took my hands. “You made these? For me?”
Caught off guard I stuttered, “Uh … yeah. That’s what I said. Your toes are starting to show through and … I don’t know … I mean I plan on waterproofing these … but you don’t have to wear them if …”
He kissed my hands and I giggled because it tickled where he was growing a mustache. “Abel, don’t do that … my hands are dirty.”
He was very much in my space when he said, “I wish to do more that than but I will behave with honor.” He quickly sat down and soon enough we saw that using his old boots to measure from had been a good idea. There was plenty of room to tuck his pants leg in as well.
“I have never seen boots done like this,” he said looking them all over.
“Promise you won’t laugh?”
Still smiling he said, “I will not laugh Querida. I know the work of good boots. My grandfather’s brother was a Zapatero … one who makes and repairs shoes.”
“A cobbler right? That’s cool. My mother wasn’t a cobbler but she did make a lot of costumes and when I was little the community theater group put on the play ‘Robin Hood.’ Do you know who I mean?” When he nodded I said, “As you’ve seen my mother never got rid of anything, especially not if it had to do with sewing. I used a pattern for Locksley Boots but I had to make some adjustments. The boots she made from this pattern were just for show and didn’t have very good soles on them. For yours I used some of the heavy leather Dad made belts from and cut it to fit for a sturdier sole.”
He was turning the boots this way and that and said, “I am very proud to have these. I am very more proud for you to make them for me. I am thinking they will be very good.
Glad that I was wrong and that he did like them I asked, “You look in a good mood. Did you find some forage?”
He shook his head. “It is still as you say ‘picked over’ in this area but perhaps there will be time for things to grow back now.”
Even after trying to figure out what he was saying in Spanish it made no sense. “Uh, if it is so picked over how will it grow back if there are people all over?”
“That is why I smile. Hakim, whether he knows it or not, has given us a large favor.” I let him explain because I still didn’t have a clue what he meant. “I have been pensando … thinking. First there are people and patrols and then there were no people and patrols. It must be for reason. I followed the path that most seemed to travel and what did I see?”
“Little Mill Bridge probably. It connects the roads out here to the highway that winds into town.”
He smiled, “Ah, and so I should have seen this Little Mill Bridge but I did not. There is just air.”
I choked out, “You didn’t see … wait … the … the bridge is … is gone?”
“Si Querida. Or should I say not gone just … broken. It ha caido abajo. It is all down.”
Not believing what I’d heard and trying to picture it I asked him to confirm it. “The bridge fell down? It just fell?”
“No … not just fell down. It was helped down on one end and then twisted free on the other.”
I was shocked. For as long as I could remember that short, metal bridge had served as our one access to town. Every other road out this way simply wandered around in circles between farms and up into the higher elevations where there were hunting cabins and some forestry stations. There was an old wagon road through a mountain pass on the far side of the BLM land but Dad had said it was washed out in places and little more than a goat track. Without that bridge getting to town was going to be a lot more difficult.
Then I realized I had no desire to go to town. And now the town couldn’t come to us either. I jumped up and threw my arms around Abel’s neck. “They’ll leave us alone now. They’ll have to.”
He smiled broadly. “They will leave us alone for a time yes. We still need to have care. Hungry people will not let a small thing like a broken bridge stop them if they think there is food here.”
“Spoil sport.” When he didn’t understand me I had to explain while I put away my boot project and called Daniel and Dog in.
“Let them play; I will watch them. And I have a treat for you too. He pulled two zipper bags out and there were four cleaned catfish in them.”
My mouth was watering big time. I hadn’t had catfish in forever, since Dad and I went fishing … before. There aren’t any catfish in the higher elevation lakes where Daniel and I would fish every once in a while. “I hope they haven’t been out too long. Where did you get them from?”
“A pond. I thought it was a rana or tortuga but it was this fishes.”
Smiling I said, “Give them here and I’ll take them in and …”
“No,” he said. “The Old Woman, she taught me a way to smoke fish. I will do it here since there are no people.” Then he pulled the puppy dogs eyes again and asked, “If I smoke these fish will you please make the baked mushrooms and the small roasted potatoes?”
I told him, “You’re silly. Just don’t burn the fish. I’m starving.”
“Ah … maravilloso. I had knowing that if I looked I would find something to tempt your hunger.”
I laughed. When Abel got excited and didn’t stop to think his grammar was horrible. “The way I feel right now, even if you had brought back frogs or turtles I would have still figured out how to cook them. Frog legs are actually good and turtle isn’t bad … better than starving. Which reminds me … if there are fish and frogs and turtles and the other stuff we’ve been surviving on why are there so many hungry people?”
As he helped me to put the shoe materials back into the basket I was carrying them in Abel said, “I do not know Querida. The only thing I can think on is that people did not want to change what they ate … or … or perhaps it is they forgot how to … to eat different things. The words will not come into my head right now. But now that the town she is picked over completely and Hakim … ah … I am not sure.”
Thinking about it I said, “No, I think you’re right. Say people ate what they were used to and then ate what the Blue Hats gave them. Maybe they did eat what they could find in town … maybe even dogs and cats by now if the radio is telling the truth. But most people waited too long to leave the cities, or whatever. But it sure must be slim pickings now. That’s probably why people were escaping into the countryside again. I wonder what happens now that Hakim has them blocked in … at least on this side.”
Some of Abel’s good mood evaporated. “In the big cities they burned. Riots and crimes were too great to count. I think it is only going to be in places like this … cut off from most people getting to them … that the wild things still grow, wild animals will still live. We must be very careful not to take too many. You have seen the hunting is not as good as it once was. It must be worse other places. The winter was hard on the big game and will be worse this coming cold season. People will push animals into the high places, they will over graze the land, they will starve just like the people starve.”
“At least the animals that have a very narrow diet will. Some, like the bear, may be OK if they can find enough to get fat on before they hibernate. Do you think the deer look scrawnier than last season?”
“Si … and there are signs that the deer are eating things they only eat when they are hungry, like the bark of trees.”
I shook my head, “Deer with eat saplings and the tops out of pine trees all the time. It drove Dad crazy when he was trying to thicken the tree line. They’ll eat dogwood trees too.”
“Si, but those are small trees. I speak of the big trees. I saw one today standing on his hind legs peeling the bark away and stripping the leaves out of the highest branches it could reach. This was in an area that was much trampled and fouled by the ones coming from the town.”
It gave me a lot to think about. I carried my stuff back in and then came out with a basket of hickory nuts and the vice I used to crack them. Abel had his project well in hand. I sat beside him and told him, “I think I know why we still have some animals around here to hunt.” He raised an eyebrow in question while I got comfortable. “If they confiscated all the guns early, before people were too hungry, then they wouldn’t have what most of them were used to hunting with. I’m surprised they didn’t do more fishing … and maybe they did, sometimes with fish it is hard to tell … but maybe fishing gear was confiscated too.”
Abel shook his head, “I did not hear such a thing. But if movements were controlled or people had too much fear to move about in the open perhaps that is why they did not fish or hunt. When I first met you it was with the bow and arrow that you helped to fight. I have seen no others do this except in the movies or television.”
“Bow hunting comes in and out of fashion around here. One year you could walk into the gun shop and buy all the bow strings and arrows you could want and the next you’d have to go to a big town or order it online to get what you wanted. When Dad taught me to hunt with a bow I was one of the youngest that the Fish and Wildlife people had ever heard of. I was pulling a small compound bow by the time I was five. I couldn’t hit much but I got better. I prefer bow hunting … guns are loud and sometimes I jump and it makes me miss what I was aiming at. And Daniel, well you know how thrilled he is with lots of loud noise.”
“Si … he is as you say … thrilled. Have you tried to teach him to hunt?”
I shook my head. “Not much sense in it because he doesn’t have enough focus to clean what he gets. He’ll go fishing … he likes the quiet … but you see how he is about taking anything he catches off the hook and I’d be scared to let him near a knife sharp enough to gut and clean a fish.”
“Day-cee, he needs to learn something. Dios prohibe, but what if something happens to us? How will he survive?”
“Why do you think I’ve been so careful? I suppose he could be like John the Baptist and survive on honey and locusts but I don’t want it to come to that.” Defensively I said, “He does know what forage he can eat and what he can’t. He also knows how the grow rooms work … he can follow a calendar by marking off days and he is better about time passing than he used to be.”
“Easy Querida, I was not criticizing.”
I sighed and tried to relax. “I know. This … this taking care of Daniel … it is what my parents raised me to do. I don’t know how to do anything else.”
Hesitantly Abel asked, “Have you ever thought that maybe you take care of him too much?”
I looked at him and he must have thought I was angry because he said, “Let me explain Day-cee. There were no special schools or classes for our Rosa. There was no room for her – for people like her – in many places where I lived. She mostly stayed at home with Abuelita and my aunts. She did what they did because to do otherwise would not have been permitted. But there was a Sister at the school that would come to see her like a friend. She always praised her to see that she was doing things for herself. Rosa was … was more autistico than Daniel. She did not talk most of the time and when she did it was not something to always be understood. But she could catch the chicken and kill it and clean it. Rosa love the cabras more than anything. She could take care of them, keep the dogs from them, milk them and help the aunts make cheese. She could help prepare the food we all ate. It is why Uncle was able to send her away; she was a hard worker and could do these things and not complain. Our Daniel needs to learn to do more … he can do more.” He drew a breath and then added, “Day-cee, learning these things does not mean he will need you any less.”
I didn’t know whether to be angry, defensive, or sad … or none of the above. I knew Abel meant well. I knew he even was telling the truth. I just didn’t know how to make it happen. “I don’t know how to teach him. Believe me, I’ve tried. But he just won’t do it for me. It makes me feel like a failure, like I should know how to fix it but I can’t.”
He leaned over and patted my shoulder. “He is … different Querida, but he is still a boy. Trust me when I say that most will not do things that they know others will do for them. I had much to learn when I came to Abuelo’s farm. I did not know how to do any of the things he expected of me. He called me spoiled and weak for my age, but I was not and it shamed me to have him say those things. Abuelo was always big in my eyes; his lips wrote words on my heart. My cousins would help me many times but … when it was found out Abuelo would undo the work and make me do it myself. He said that I had to learn because there would not always be someone there to do it for me or to help me. It was a hard lesson to learn at first but it made me stronger. It may take Daniel longer to learn, it may give us the indigestion, but he must learn … for his sake … and for ours. Would your padre not want that? For Daniel to learn?”
I didn’t answer him for a while. It took me time to wrap my head around the idea that there were things that Daniel could do that I wasn’t letting him do … either because it was easier for me to do them or because I just didn’t believe he could. I gathered up the pile of nutmeats I had made and before I went inside I looked at Abel and said, “Maybe I’m more like Momma than I thought.”
When I got to the kitchen and started fixing dinner I thought about it. They used to think it was neat that Dad could blacksmith and weld metal the old-fashioned way but also I heard a few people say it was a waste of time when you could just go buy a new something. They didn’t think there was much sense in it. Everyone had always thought Dad was a little peculiar teaching me the things he did; wondering why he bothered since I was unlikely to really need those skills. I was a girl and lived in a modern world. Maybe I was like those other people, not thinking there was much sense in teaching Abel other ways of doing things. Daniel was smart, I knew that, but maybe I was holding him back from being as smart as he could be. And maybe I was doing it because I was afraid that one day he wouldn’t need me anymore and then what would become of my mission in life?
It was a problem and I’d thought about it just as much as my heart could stand for a while so I focused on doing what was needful. Abel had asked for baked mushrooms and that was just too easy for words. He also wanted roasted potatoes which was another plain and easy thing to do. I was in the mood for something a little special though to go with the smoked catfish so I decided to make Hickory Nut Stuffed Eggs.
The chickens were not giving quite as many eggs as they had before. I think they preferred the outdoors and I planned on mentioning to Abel that since it looked like there were going to be fewer travellers through the area that we move them back outside. But because of how many we had they still made more eggs than we could easily use every day. I always had a couple of dozen in reserve. I had some boiled eggs waiting to be pickled so I repurposed six of them by slicing them in half and removing the yellow yolks. I mashed the yolks with two tablespoons of butter from the jars Momma had put up and a little powdered cream. Then I stirred in two tablespoons of table mustard and a little salt and pepper.
I took some of the hickory nuts and chopped them up finely until I had a half cup and then mixed them into the egg yolk concoction. Then when it was as smooth as it was going to get I spooned the filling back into the wells of the egg whites. When I was finished I put them on my mother’s antique glass egg platter. From there I thought if I was going to get fancy I might as well do it up right.
I made a quick herb and small greens salad and a vinegar and oil dressing. Out came the nice dishes and silver and glasses and after a quickly dust I set them up on the never used dining room table. I took the fish from Abel when he brought it in and told him and Daniel to get cleaned up … not just wash their hands but change their shirts and brush their hair. That got me a surprised look but they gave in gracefully. I ran and put the drawstring skirt on. Then I had another thought.
I went to one of the storage rooms I rarely opened. I had to use the key that stayed on top of the door frame to get in. Dad had called it the “barter room.” There wasn’t a lot in it … some five gallon buckets of nails and the like. Dad hadn’t had time to fill it with anything of import except for one thing. All along one wall were these racks that held liquor … most of it homemade or the kind of rotgut stuff that Momma used to make her herbal tinctures and the like with. I didn’t drink; was no longer even tempted. I’d sampled a bottle once when I wondered what all the fuss was about and if it would truly take my troubles away one day after Daniel had been particularly trying and I missed everyone so bad. I made the mistake of thinking if it was clear that meant it was going to be weak, close to water. Boy was I wrong. One glass of this stuff called Everclear had me puking my guts up for hours … and that was after I was finally able to breathe after the first big gulp.
I didn’t really have any desire to drink again but Abel had told stories of his family and one of the things he mentioned was that there was always a bottle of wine to go with just about every meal except breakfast. I hadn’t a clue what kind of wine went with smoked fish, or if it even mattered. I refused to worry about it; he’d either drink it or he wouldn’t; but at least it would be a reminder of his home from before. I grabbed a bottle of the stuff that Dad had called a rose’ and brought it to the table.
Abel and Daniel were in the kitchen and I had to laugh at the look on their faces when I told them where we were eating. Daniel soon lost interest in anything but the fact there would be food but Abel was willing to get into the spirit of things. The table was too big for us to sit on opposite ends but when I told him the head of the table was his, he insisted on pulling out my chair and seating me on his right.
I poured Daniel well-watered down blackberry shrub and then uncovered the bottle of homemade wine for Abel. He was speechless. I told him, “You don’t have to drink it. Um, I don’t even know if it is any good to be honest. I’m really not sure that I could tell either. But … you know … you said your Abuelo would always have a glass of wine with his dinner … and … and I thought … well … you really don’t have to.”
The wine was good … or at least it wasn’t spoiled. I just couldn’t drink it without making a face. Abel laughed and switched glasses with me and watered down what was left in his glass so that I could drink it. That was better but it still made my stomach feel over warm.
After all the food had been eaten Abel leaned back in his chair and said, “Querida this was very wonderful. Was there a special occasion?”
I shrugged, “We’re alive, that’s reason enough I guess.”
He reached over and took my hand and kissed it and said, “Si … it is.”