Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 16

Chapter 16

John used his talents and got the tractor back up and running and Micah was as proud as a peacock to be able to show off his new skills to me. John said that whoever had been maintaining it all along had done a good job and that there were spares and other things in the shed it had been kept in that Mark should move over sooner rather than later including some tools that had been left in there.

The “yard” that surrounded the cabin area was getting crowded. They were having some crowding issues down at the farm as well and Mark managed to solve both of them with a simple act of generosity – he gave the farm his travel trailer. Sam and Micah moved into the trailer freeing a room in both the farm house and in the trailer where John’s family stayed. This let John store more of their personal belongings in the trailer rather than under a tarp in the yard. There was a plan to move John’s prefab house to the farm but it would have to wait until after the spring gardens had been prepared, laid out, and planted … and as it turned out after some other things as well.

We parked the tractor where the travel trailer had sat and would eventually build a pole barn which would then get sided before winter weather set in again … or that was the plan. Of course the tractor wasn’t sitting there very much. Mark and I were out on the slope laying out and then cutting in the terraces that we would experiment with this year. We weren’t making as much headway as we had hoped. The ground was rocky and difficult to work with. It started going much quicker when John and Micah went out to the reservoir and brought back a little bobcat front loader with some other attachments.

“Boy, ya make me cringe every time I see you on that slope. Park the tractor and use this here to cut them terraces in. The tracks won’t let you slip and slide and its low slung enough you won’t tip. My nerves cain’t handle it no more,” John opined with exaggerated grievance in his voice.

The bobcat did help – helped everyone’s nerves, not just John’s – but it was still slower going than we had expected. The work wasn’t necessarily so much in cutting the terrace itself, though that was pain enough; time was involved in building the retaining wall to keep each terrace from washing out. We took advantage of a few natural retaining walls in the landscape but most of them we had to build ourselves by bringing in slabs of sandstone and granite from the old rock quarry several miles away. That was not fun. We built smaller terraces up towards the top by building the retaining wall first and then back filling it. It was these smaller terraces that I planted in first. The other terraces we built would have to wait a season as we did what we could to improve the soil and to see how bad a problem erosion was going to be.

My first plant plantings were of the leafy green variety – cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard greens, and spinach. I also planted as many onions, English peas, snap peas, and radishes as I had room for. Cheryl and Aunt Lilah planned and planted a large kitchen garden down on the farm and then Rudy – I’m not sure I want to know where he “found” the seeds – added quarter acre plots of peas, onions, and some of the leafy greens for possible trading at the Bait & Tackle.

“Mark! Mark!!” Rudy called as he walked over to where Mark and I were working on the latest terrace as he waved a hand. “Give me a sec of your time? Sorry Del, didn’t see you there. This’ll save me a trip.”

I could tell there wasn’t an emergency; had there been he would have radioed up on the handheld I kept clipped to my pocket. Jessie was a little wiggly in the backpack as he was getting excited at seeing his daddy get down off the bobcat and head our way.

“What’s up?” we both ask near simultaneously.

“My flaming blood pressure but I think I’ve got a way to fix it.”

“Rudy, don’t take this the wrong way but sometimes the way you fix things has a tendency to break them first,” I sassed at him a little.

He snorted in appreciation at the jab. “Maybe so but all things considered I think you’ll agree I behaved myself.”

At that I raised my eyebrows. “What now?” Mark asked already knowing he wasn’t likely to like what we’d be hearing.

“That delegation from the town finally arrived. And right hacked off they were that the bridge was out.” Rudy seemed to take some satisfaction in their being hacked off. “They are trying to take an inventory of what people still have to eat, including what they might have to feed their cattle with, so that people can be ‘taxed an equitable portion’ to support those that don’t have much left.

“Taxed?” I yelped. “Do they even have any legal taxing authority?” In all the madness of trying to survive I had completely forgotten about things like taxes and the like. What on earth would they need taxes for anyway except to support the military and fix the road? I wasn’t going to pay for some bean counter to go around to my neighbors, demand to know what they had in their pantries, and then sic some dogs on the ones that were mandated to contribute to some kind of redistribution of resources.

Rudy saw that Mark and I had both gotten the problem real fast and nodded his head. “I asked them the same thing and that may be the one fly in their ointment. They told me to shut up about that and that either I gave willingly or the natives still living in town might get restless and come take it all.”

Mark growled, “Let ‘em try.”

Rudy nodded in appreciation. “As much as I agree with the sentiment son reality tells me I don’t know enough about the enemy and their numbers to say for sure who would win that battle. I’m out to avoid battles when I can and just plain ol’ win the war without having to make casualties out o’ any of our own people. Lord I miss Hy … er, sorry Del,” Rudy said looking at me in concern.

I closed my eyes for just a second then drew a smile up from someplace and told him, “I miss him too Rudy, for a lot of reasons. But you’re right; he of all of us had training in this stuff. You might ask Micah.” At Rudy and Mark’s looks I had to laugh. “OK, I know that sounds strange but Daddy used to quiz Micah with some kind of strategy game he made up. I never had the time for it and Daddy … well, you know how Daddy was about women on the front lines. He could be as old-fashioned as Shakespeare’s Quill about some things.”

After shaking his head Mark asked Rudy, “You said you had something you wanted to talk to us about?”

“Yeah, you think you have enough terraces to get you started? You can have room down in the kitchen garden if you still need it.”

Mark looked at me since that was my area. “These we are working on now are for later, trying to get ahead so I can build the dirt up.”

“Yeah, I see it. But for right now are you finished?”

I looked at Mark before saying, “I … I guess we could be. I’ve got the raised beds closer to the cabin I can use for what needs to be planted next month.”

“Good,” he said relieved. “Mark, what I need … what I’d appreciate,” Rudy said, trying to be conciliatory. “Is some help and since you have the most experience with a bobcat and dozer, with you involved the work will go faster.”

“I’m listening,” Mark replied.

“Since we’re one of the closest with the ability I wanna pull down the highway and county road over passes between here and town. It won’t stop an army but it’ll slow down a bunch a gang banger wannabes in pickups, SUVs, and what have you.”

I said, “They’ll just go around.”

“They’ll have the same problem no matter which direction they try. I got on the radio as soon as the ijits left and everyone that can is going to pull down every bridge and overpass they’re near. A couple of men I know say they have a source to get some demolition equipment and they’ll blow the cuts too which will really limit their options. They want to play that game we plan on boxing ‘em in the best we can … or at least cut down on the roads that they can come out here on safely with any speed. Mark, you got anything left at your sister’s old place you better let one of us ride in with you and get it. I have a feeling that things could go from bad to worse if the townies keep pushing at us out here.”

I shivered like a goose was walking across my grave. “Why are they wasting time making threats? Don’t they have enough to take up their time? Spring planting is here. They’ve got all those houses in town to salvage from and do something with. If there are some people that can’t behave themselves they could form a delegation and start rounding them up and dumping them in the state prison and tell them you don’t work you don’t eat. If the knowledge base is small they could make that work using community gardens or something like that. Are the Looter Laws still in effect? Couldn’t we get them on that? We don’t even know if these people from town are legitimate representatives that have been officially voted and sworn into office … they are legitimate representatives period and aren’t out to make a profit for themselves.”

I had to stop and draw breath which gave Rudy a chance to step in. “All of them’s is good points and have been brought up; but I don’t have the answers for your Dellie. In general my opinion is most people are just plain dumb as stumps. Might not be what you want to hear but that’s been my experience.”

Well, what are you going to say to something like that? Frankly even though I was just twenty-one that had been my own experience too; some of the things the people in my university, or those that I worked with, got up to went way beyond stupid to the criminally ridiculous.

Rudy started talking to Mark. “When the levies went the National Guard emptied their armories in this area but we got some good ol’ boys that know how to get up to some high jinks that when they let ‘er blow will be just as bad as those big guns. Ol’ Man Cherry’s grandson worked at the quarry and … er … liberated a few items that will help curb the townies enthusiasm for trouble.”

“What can I do to help?”

Both men looked at me like I was the sixth string on a five-string banjo. “Well now Dellie …,” Rudy started to hem and haw. Mark just opened and closed his mouth a few times trying to figure out how to say no without saying it and setting me off.

Feeling pity for both of them I relented and said, “I’m not asking to man a gunnery position for pity sake but if you think I’m going to sit in a rocker and twiddle my thumbs if there is work to be done you can think again. I will keep Jessie safe Mark, but there are other things … like first aid, camouflage outfits, reloading shells … there has to be something I can do to contribute.”

Both men relaxed enough that I nearly laughed in their faces. I really wasn’t looking for a fight, nor did I want one to come to us, but if it did I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I hadn’t contributed to the safety of those that did fight for our sakes.

“Let me think on it Dellie but go ahead and get started on making up any of your supplies in case we do need to make sure that if someone needs patching up you can do it.” Turning to Mark Rudy added, “We aim to get this done before they can muster any kind of opposition to it which means for the sake of safety starting right now. Can you drive this thing down to the farm and help us get going on it?”

Well, that pretty much destroyed my plans for the day and after Rudy told me that they’d feed Mark from farm supplies all I had left to do was go back to the cabin and … well, I wasn’t pouting though someone who wasn’t very kind might have said so … but not to my face if they wanted to keep their skin on.

I had planted the last of what I had to plant the day before so I was left with time on my hands and I hated when that happened; it was always so unsettling. And contrary to Rudy’s assumption I was already fully stocked on all of my first aid components and homemade preparations; it was one of the few things – that and sewing – that I could do while I nursed Daddy. So I pulled out my master list of projects and turned to the ones that I had listed as pressing or urgent. Right at the top of the list was one that needed doing and needed doing bad. The root cellar had to be cleaned out.

I grabbed a couple of five gallon buckets and headed down stairs with Jessie who was more than happy to play in a corner of the basement I cordoned off for him to keep him out of trouble. It was cool bordering on cold down there but I knew come summer we’d probably move some cots down to take advantage of it again.

All of the apples were used and so was pretty much everything else except for some sprouting potatoes that I was going to use as seed next month. I really hadn’t had a chance last fall to do the job properly but this year I was going to have to do a much better job of stocking up. I knew Micah hadn’t said anything to anyone about the supplies that Daddy had stashed but if things got rough at the farm I couldn’t in all conscience withhold something life sustaining to them especially after all that they’d given to us. I wouldn’t see any of them starve if I could help it, not even John and his family even though they were no kin to us at all.

After a couple of hours of organizing, scrubbing, and sweeping the root cellar area was clean as a whistle and ready for any new additions once they started coming. Jessie had fallen asleep on a quilt I had put down and I knew when he woke up he’d be hungry. I really wasn’t in the mood to cook so I grabbed a couple of biscuits that I had left over from breakfast and then made a little bit of tuna fish salad from one of the numerous cans that still sat in my own pantry. Micah didn’t like tuna fish and Daddy hadn’t been able to keep it down and Mark never said either way so I hadn’t used up much of it up to this point. There seemed to be a gazillion of those little cans in the tub I had stored them in.

Jessie was more than pleased to eat tuna fish though he preferred it with crackers rather than on the biscuit. While he ate I decided to go through the whole inventory of food stocks to see if there was anything besides the tuna fish that wasn’t getting used up the way I had expected. I also checked all of the seals on the jars and cans. Everything was pretty much what I expected though I did find a can of tomatoes that was leaking and I got rid of it as quick as I could and scrubbed the shelf down with hot water and vinegar.

I was wondering if they would feed Mark supper too when I heard boots on the back porch – I had locked and bolted the front of the house already – and looked up to see the man I was wondering about.

“Hey! You’re home!!”

A slowly widening smile on his face told me that he was happy to be home and have me notice it.

“Brought leftovers your Aunt Esther sent up. They had Stone Soup out at the gate. Everyone that showed up brought something to contribute and somehow there was enough for everyone to take a bit home too. Did I catch you before you started cooking?”

“You sure did. Gosh it’s been years since I had stone soup,” I laughed. “Anybody get the stone?”

“I heard Lilah was going to put one in but Esther turned green and absolutely forbid it. Even without the stone it turned out pretty good. Seems like everyone out this way has just enough or near to it to get them through until the spring gardens start producing though I noticed most people look like they’ve been on a diet this winter.”

“Any interesting news? Besides a bunch of grown men blowing things up I mean?” I teased, simply pleased to have him home. I was helping him out of the coveralls he was still wearing to protect his clothes when he said, “Got a few of them playing around with biofuel but no one with a set up as big as John’s. And John’s got a new project too. Big John’s son … the one that was living in Elizabethtown showed up two days ago and wants to start what he calls a methane digester which could be an alternative to biofuel. Got more than a few people putting together plans for stills.” That made him laugh, and me too. “Got a few people asking us to hold onto some syrup in the hopes of making a trade later and somehow or other … maybe at the funeral … folks heard you know what is edible out in the wooded areas and what isn’t so’s you might be hearing from some people asking for some lessons.” And with that he grabbed me around the waste and planted a breath-stealing kiss on my lips.

“My goodness Mark. What was that all about?”

“Being thankful.”

“What?”

“I’ve heard some pretty sorry tails of what people have been eating and how they’ve been forced to make do over the winter. Most of them have forgotten what their grandparents foraged for if they ever knew. More than a few men my age from town have come belly crawling out just to have a chance at the farmers’ daughters as the girls in town seem to keep waiting for the grocery stores to open up.”

I looked to see if he was exaggerating and he caught my look. “I’m telling the unvarnished truth Del … right from a couple of the horses’ mouths. I couldn’t believe it but Kermit …”

“Our Kermit? From school?” I asked surprised, not having really thought about him since we had stopped at the propane store a lifetime ago.

“How many Kermits do you know?” he laughed. “Well guess what? He’s living out on the Harkness place. His parents’ both passed when they couldn’t get the medications they needed, but Kermit escaped with his little girl right before the gangs hit town. And guess who … naw, you’ll never guess. He’s taken up with Louise Harkness!”

His announcement fell flatter than he expected. I’d never heard of the woman. “Come on, you have to remember Louise. She’s every bit of seven or eight years older than Kermit … she worked at the Piggly Wiggly before it closed down … always looked road hard and hung up wet? Thought she was the karaoke queen out at the Ranch Bar & Grill?”

I handed him a glass of milk to hold him over until I could get the soup heated up. “So?” I asked finally vaguely remembering the woman he was referring to and the occasional jokes that were made at her expense. “Kermit looks like a big mouth bass during fly hatching season. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Well … it just … well … for one she’s older than him.”

“Not that I have any experience but from what I hear tell from gossip older women and younger men make a good combination … especially in the bedroom.”

I had to hand him a rag to mop his face as he choked and spit up the swallow of milk he had just taken. “Del!!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “I may not have any experience in that direction Mark but I didn’t live under a rock. And if you look at the history of many families you’ll find matches like this that are very successful.”

“Wellll …. I … I suppose. Kermit seems happy and more than a couple of the other men looked like they wished they had whatever it is that Kermit has got.”

“See there?” I told him. Then I asked, “Did it seem like any of the men were checking out Ali and Cindy?”

His eyebrows shot way up. “Whoooeeee. Rudy would have forbid them from stepping out of the house if he could have gotten away with it. He did make sure that his oldest daughter stayed inside.” He laughed like it was funny but I had a feeling that Rudy didn’t see the humor at all. I pitied the man that even thought about courting Rudy Carlisle’s daughters for they were sure to be in for a rough row to hoe.

“Did you all manage to do whatever it was that Rudy wanted?”

“Partially. My ears are still ringing where we brought down the overpasses. And since there was room on the flatbed I brought back some concrete chunks that when I can get around to it I’ll break up and we can use in the retaining walls. Had more than a couple of the men ask me to let them know how it works out because they’ve got some steep areas that might come in handy for gardens closer to their houses.”

“What about the farmers in the bottoms?”

“Most of them have been flooded out; they’re moving to higher ground and taking over the farms of families they know won’t be coming back for whatever reason. A lot of the topsoil is gone which means the easy farming is gone. And without the levies it’s just going to flood again; maybe not this year but it could.”

Talk quieted down while we ate and tried to get most of Jessie’s dinner in his mouth rather than on his face. Afterwards we took turns in the shower, quick ones since we were trying to save the propane for canning season which meant the water was only as hot as the sun could get it during the day.

I was shivering even after getting dressed, it was another cool night and washing my hair had been a mistake.

“Wanna help each other warm up?” Mark asked with a devilish look in his eyes.

I might have been tempted but I wasn't about to tell him that. “Mark, you said you wouldn’t push.”

“I know. I just like to torture myself. Come on, I’ll build a small fire in the fireplace and you can dry your hair in there and I’ll pop some popcorn. We’ll even put garlic salt on it.” He wasn’t making my self-denial any easier.

“Humph, if we both have garlic breath how is that going to help?”

“Welllll, you weren’t supposed to think a that.” With the air of someone that had been caught trying to be naughty. I knew he was just funning, and frankly I was enjoying the attention, but I wondered how long we'd be able to play such dangerous games before we got in a pickle that might be hard to back out of.

We were half way through the bowl of popcorn when I looked over to find Mark dead asleep and working on his first snore. I looked over at Jessie to find him nodding off too. I just rolled my eyes and put Jessie to bed then brought my inventories, lists, and menus to the sofa to work on them where it was warm.

It was almost the end of February and I’d planted everything I could up to that point. Now it was time to prepare for what needed to be planted in March. I decided I would plant the beets in one of the smaller terraces but the broccoli and leaf lettuce like Black Seeded Simpson would be planted in raised beds nearer the cabin. I was running out of ideas on how to build varmint proof barriers to our garden with what we had on hand and decided I would just have to plant enough that I could afford to lose some.

The deer population had been completely decimated. No one had even seen scat which wasn’t a good sign in the long run. Hadn't seen rabbits, raccoons, or hardly any wild creature of any size. Mark had warned me but I hadn’t given the problem enough thought. And Rudy had been forced to cull a lot of our own stock of domestic meat animals. Those goats were looking more and more important but I don’t know how I would take on anything else … especially when I would have a sharp learning curve at the same time. I put the idea of the goats down on the list to mention to Rudy, and maybe John, as it never seemed to come up in conversation naturally.

Picking my planting schedule back up I noted all of the other plants I wanted to get in the ground next month: more head cabbage, turnip greens and root turnips, more head lettuce, more onions, and more peas. The biggest task however was going to be getting the Irish potatoes in the ground. I only had one area that I could grow the potatoes in at the moment and that was in the raised beds. There was no way I was going to get enough potatoes to last us year round that way.

I hated to do it but it looked like I was going to have to take Rudy up on his offer to use part of a field down on the farm. I made a note to ask him sooner rather than later but I also wondered where other people were getting their seed potatoes from … or if they had been able to hold any back at all. I was babying my sweet potato slips and praying they survived until May when I could plant them. I was starting to get the wooly boogers when I realized that with the “Seed and Feed” type stores closed the kinds and variety of foods that any of us could plant was going to be determined by how well a previous crop did and whether we could save any seed for the following year.

To take my mind off of that problem I decided to look into the future a little bit. After March’s planting I would have a bit of break in April … strike that; I’d be planting corn, beans and tomatoes in April but at least it wouldn't be too bad. May would be a real kicker and it would also be when I would need the larger fields ready because squash and melons spread like crazy as they grow. May would also be the month when some soft fruits started ripening. June was mostly successive planting of what went into the ground in May but it was also when the domesticated fruits started producing more heavily. I looked at July and knew that I was probably going to slip into a coma from the amount of work I was looking at in that month, assuming the heat didn’t get me first. I had a ton of stuff to plant in July, plus what was ready for harvest from previous plantings, plus July started the serious fruit harvesting season. August looked as bad as July and September even a little worse if possible. October was when the last of the apples came in for winter storage and when I had to scramble for what forage I could to help stave off empty shelves before Spring. Cold spells in November would be culling time if I remember right and that was no small amount of work either.

I looked and looked and looked trying to figure a way that offered more options but just didn’t see it and I hadn’t even asked Rudy if he was planting any grains besides corn this year. I joggled Mark awake. It wasn’t easy.

“Aw man, you shouldn’t have let me go to sleep. What time is it anyway?” he asked just this side of grumpy.

“I don’t know but we need to talk.”

That gave him pause and he was finally completely awake when I asked him, “How would you feel about an April wedding?”

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