Wednesday, November 2, 2011
A new story for the ArchDruid Report contest:
The heat of July was already seeping in through the chinks of the house, breathing softly in through the open window. The straw tick rustled as Lawry rolled over and groaned. His head felt like it was being stung by nettles and pounded by bricks. The celebration had gone on too long and too intensely – he should have left at midnight, like Marie did. Sun sent glowing shafts under the thick indigo wool drapes. He’d overslept, and she’d let him. Hell to pay later.
Slowly, achingly, he dressed, then carried the chamber pot out with him into the hall. He could hear Matt and Jori shrieking in the kitchen and quickly changed his mind about breakfast. He tiptoed through the front door, emptied the pot into the compost, rinsed and set it on the porch. Today the sun felt good on his shirt as he awkwardly started to hoe weeds. The half-acre kitchen garden had an abundance of lettuce, peas, kale and cabbage; it was the season of fullness. In a minute, she’d glance out and bring him coffee – she was a wonderful wife, and he was grateful. Images swam up of last night’s fete for Jon, the first returning USAnaut in ten years. Jon Jimson, his classmate through eight grades, always the crazy daring one – now suddenly back and the center of attention.
Marie had come up behind him, patted him on the shoulder. He gratefully accepted it, looked away from her thin-lipped expression. He probably had made some kind of fool of himself; not the first time. The party was pretty much a blank, but by the end of the day Lawry was sure he’d have heard it all. Very little slipped through the gossip mill’s cracks. The bitter dandelion/chickory brew was almost too much for his shakey gut – Johnson’s homebrew had gone down so smooth, but stayed, like a vicious squatter, far too long.
“Marie, I’m sorry, I –”
She shrugged. Her straw-blonde hair was cut just under her ears for summer; freckles beginning to merge into a tan. She was still lithe and attractive after five years of marriage. He’d seen the eager eyes turned toward her last night. If he wasn’t careful, she could be swept out of his life. He stretched his sore face into a smile.
She said, “I’m taking Matt and Jori to Risa’s, then I’ll order flour down at the mill – can you get it before midmeal?”
“Yeah, no problem. I’ll take a cartload of the birch to pay down some of it. Do you know if they want more potatoes?” Last harvest had been good, and there was still more than enough in the cellar.
“Well, I saw it on the list last Friday, so probably.” He almost missed her brief smile as she quickly hugged him, then returned to the house. The sun started to bake off some of his hangover, seeping into his skin, beneficent and soothing. The odor of moist loam rose up like sweet perfume. Alone with his thoughts, Lawry hoed with more vehemence, as if the aching muscles could push away everything else. But his thoughts were relentless.
He had never wanted to be a ‘Naut, but Jon had been brimming with plans since they were seven – how he’d go off on the long, lonely trek through wilderness, charting what was there and what wasn’t anymore; mapping the places that might yield salvage, and the places too dangerous to go near; living on his wits and the small pack of precious tools to give him an edge against the barbarians. Why aren’t we called barbarians? Lawry mused. Somehow, it was always the others. Lawry had studied to be a restorer, had apprenticed at 14, perfectly content to live within the known world. His parents were still alive; five sisters and brothers had 22 children, and the family gatherings were joyous. Martinsville had what was needed – the other villages came over to employ their ironworker, weavers, and medic. The mercantile was the largest in the district. Why give that up to risk death?
He hadn’t even thought about any of this in three years; Jon’s return had shaken something loose inside. Lawry drew his hoe carefully alongside young cabbage. Stories from last night coalesced from the inner fog. There was a big new city two weeks southeast of here, tucked up in the Cascade range, living off trade from various salvage claims, the 2,000 inhabitants surviving on greenhouse plants and goat meat. The elders would be sending an ambassador out soon.
Jon had sworn that there was a secret rendering plant in the city that simply recycled the inhabitants themselves – but of course they wouldn’t admit to that, and he’d only heard it from an old hermit who lived a distance from the city called Crater.
“There certainly wasn’t a big cemetery,” he’d commented, as he’d told the tale to a mix of laughter and chilled silence. Lawry, who had been listening from a far corner, nursing his whiskey, remembered Jon’s wild stories from school.
Another item that silenced the room was the buffalope spotting – Jon had brought home drawings that he swore was an odd long-legged, shaggy beast wandering east of the Great Desert, among the foothills of the Rockies. Nothing in the zoology lists matched it, and Jon’s opinion was that it was a mutation wandered up from the nuked flats of California. Lawry wondered at that, too – although again, it sounded so much like Jon in the classroom.
But as the evening got fuzzier, Lawry found himself paying more attention to the joyous adulation; the excitement as if each person there had taken the trip. What did they get from it? He had hung out in the shadows, watching Marie chatting among the cooks, watching his neighbors slapping each other on the back and cheering each of the stories. What use were stories? The town survived because of farmers and the craftsfolk like the miller Shon, and Al the blacksmith, and Mina the glassblower. This wild adventure was so frivolous – but look at the welcome Jon got. A month’s worth of food in one evening! And he would get a house, a garden plot and free medical for life. Lawry was sure Jon would have gone for nothing.
“So, how go the crops?” Jon’s voice cut into his daydreaming; Lawry dropped the hoe and turned, stumbling slightly.
“Jon? Didn’t you have a Q&A town hall today?” Lawry said. His voice rasped from a dry throat.
“I excused myself for a walk. Hadn’t sat that long in years.”
Jon had aged, that was clear – but still the same grin, gray eyes part-closed in amusement. His blonde hair was halfway down his back in a braid; there was a scar on his right cheek and some of his right earlobe gone – that was the brigands he’d told about last night. He was as scrawny as ever, but more muscled. And some other undescribable difference. Lawry realized he was staring stupidly, and bent to pick up the hoe.
“It’s – good to see you, Jon.” Was it? He wasn’t sure. “Glad you got home safe.” That part was true.
Jon grinned wider. “Definitely times I wasn’t sure I would… but what a country!” He took a breath, as if to begin recounting.
“What do you plan to do now?” Lawry cut in. He didn’t need to hear more tales. Tales didn’t grow cabbage. He slowly hoed out a few weeds while half-watching his friend.
“First, get re-acquainted with all my old friends.” Jon waved his hand blithely, but there was a catch in his voice.
“Was it lonely out there?” That was what Lawry wanted most to know – how did Jon manage three years alone? Three years without women. Probably.
Jon looked around, found a wooden box, carried it over and sat down beside the end row. That nudged Lawry – “I’m sorry. Would you like coffee or tea? We have mint, chamomile…” he trailed off, mind blanking. His head still hurt, and he vaguely blamed his friend.
“Nothing thanks. I was hoping to say hello to Marie – is she here?”
The fear that he had stomped on last night came up like old whiskey. “Uh, no – she’s dropping the two boys off at sprout school and putting in the milling order. Knowing Marie, she’ll be gone for a couple hours, visiting her sister. Didn’t – didn’t you see her last night?” Marie certainly remembered greeting Jon; she repeated the story twice after Lawry got home.
Jon shrugged. “I guess. There was so much going on. A bit overwhelming, to be honest – after all that time alone.” That was it – there was a streak of sadness that he’d never seen in Jon before. “There weren’t as many towns as the map said there’d be… well, they were still there – but the people were gone.” He frowned, kicked the dirt with his heel. “Lots of animals, birds – but if I ran into twenty occupied towns in a year, that was a lot. “
“I’m not sure I wanted to know that.”
“I’m not sure I wanted to know that.” Jon laughed, without humor. “I had a different sense of the world before I left.” He shook himself; stood up. “But tell me what you’ve been up to for eight years? We haven’t really talked since I went into ‘naut school.”
Lawry winced. “What can I say? Hoeing cabbage, making or fixing furniture for those who can afford it. Three children; two alive.” He shrugged – embarrassed, annoyed. “Life doesn’t change much here.”
“Right – old Morgan took you on as apprentice before I went into training – I remember now! Is he still as crazy as he always seemed when he taught shop?”
“Old Morgan died last winter. Flu. I guess I’m master now… not that I have his skills.”
Jon was silent, his face looked almost panicky. “Well, sure – they would have to…” he muttered, looking away. Louder, he asked, “What about Old Man Dyskstra? And Harpy Williams? I – I didn’t see them at the party last night.”
“Dyskstra hasn’t left his bed for about eight months. Widow Williams died two years ago. That’s her cabin you’re getting. ” They stared at each other.
“Oh. I guess I have some catching up to do.”
“Odd that they don’t make that part of the debrief.”
Jon frowned. “These two weeks of quarantine, they mostly wanted to listen to me. Guess they figured the townsfolk would fill me in. Or maybe they didn’t want to hit me with too much.” He jumped up. “Guess I’d better get back. They’re gonna think I ran away.” Jon grinned, walked over and gave him a fast hug, to Lawry’s shock, then hurried away with a wave, calling back, “Say hi to Marie!”
After Jon had vanished around the hedge, Lawry put down the hoe and went inside. He needed more coffee.
There was plenty of time to examine the alternate fallow and cropped fields as Marie walked the boys to the weekly part-lessons, part-playtime that everyone called “sprout school”. Matt was four and Jori three – they walked slow. She checked her stride, feeling antsy, trying to be patient. Jori of course had to have one of every weed and plant he saw – possibly he would follow her as herbalist. He already knew which plants not to touch or eat. Matt preferred to search for birds and animals, looking for spoor and glimpses of wild creatures. It was a fairly solitary walk along a private dirt path that cut across the fields, and sliced a quarter mile off the trip. When the path finally ended on the broad Tan Creek Road, Marie made the boys walk close to her. Too often horsemen careened along here like deer fleeing a cougar.
A half-mile later, the smithy’s dark smoke was visible, and the shacks of Martinsville’s humble folk crowded the road, the easier for their occupants to pop out and beg a little of travellers. Marie hated this part of the walk, even though none of the humble folk had dared ask her for anything in the past few years. They knew better. Still, she picked Jori up and hurried Matt a little as they passed one room stick-and-daub boxes, poorly thatched and leaning, their narrow windows and doors merely curtained. Beyond them, the town proper started: mud-plaster and straw cob on the bones of the former city; a few stone buildings, mostly one story or wood for the second floor. The place looked like a coat that had gone at the cuffs and collar, and was patched on top of its patches. Dust from the road tinged everything, the townsfolk reasoned, so why go to the huge expense of painting? Some of the homes had colored curtains, a rare few had glass in the windows and Sven Frank the cobbler had a tiny blue shoe dangling over the door. That was all. It grated on her. Sometimes when she walked, she imagined the town colored like the meadow flowers – pink, yellow, azure, purple. Streets of color and life! Instead, she had this dingy huddle of houses, supposedly the biggest town in the district? Five streets one way, three the other… ringed with ruins, gardens, farms and the more pungent businesses such as the tanner’s.
Shaking herself out of it, Marie turned left on Second. As Matt recognized Risa’s, he started running. She let a wriggling Jori down to run after his brother and watched as they were let in to the low-fenced yard by Risa’s tween daughter Pat. Marie waved at Pat and the boys, and retraced her steps. The mill was at the base of Fourth, by the river it needed to run. But even the short half-mile to the mill would take an hour, since her sister Janni lived on Fourth and brother Tad worked at the salvage shop on Pitt. There would be no excuse good enough if they found out she’d passed them by!
Janni’s two-story house was wedged between the weaver’s and the medic’s. A pre-Chaos “relic”, it had brick walls, fine wood trim, but of course only oiled paper in the windows. The door was open to give more light and air.
“Hi, sis!” Marie called out as she hurried past the elegant staircase, down the hall to the kitchen where Janni’s voice echoed reply.
“Hi, Mare! Have you come to give me a hand with the washing?”
Their old joke; as children, they’d fought bitterly about who had to pound the clothes on the river rocks. Marie usually lost even though she was the elder.
Janni was mixing up a batch of bread on the kitchen counter, up to her elbows in flour, while five-year old Gert sat at the table, braiding strips of scrap linen. Her tiny fingers swiftly flipped the free ends of cloth, over/under/over, until the strips were nearing the end. Then she groped along the table for more strips. Blind from birth, Gert was learning the rug trade.
“Why weren’t you at the fest last night?” she asked Janni. “The stories were just amazing!”
“Oh… ah. Well, I guess it was hard to think about listening to Jon, with Mick still…”
Marie bit her lip. “Yes. Sorry.” She should have remembered about Janni’s brother-in-law. Jon was the first of the five ‘nauts to return; now the “countdown” would become more acute for those waiting for the others. She tried to speak lightly. “Well, Jon’s known for his wild stories, and last night he had some real ‘rageous ones! Like a mutant buffalo rabbit, and people living in a raft city on a huge lake.”
Janni piled the dough into a bowl and set it aside to rise. “I’m so not surprised. Walk with me to the pump?”
Marie followed her out back, along the alley. Sunny, wide enough for bulky recycling carts, the alley was treacherous with broken asphalt and smelled faintly of sewage. The compost buckets by each door were the obvious reason. Only one of the back doors was open; old Syl was shelling beans in her doorway. She looked up as they passed but didn’t wave. Sour old woman, Marie thought.
“Yes, Jon seemed an odd choice to me. How will we ever know what’s real?” Janni continued.
“I heard they have a drug that will make him tell the truth,” Marie commented. “They only use it on ‘nauts.”
“Oh, come on! That’s an old guys’ tale.”
Elder Marc was filling his two wooden buckets; Janni waited until he was done and around the corner before she continued.
“Are you still fond of him?” she asked. “Are you sorry –“
Marie shook her head to forestall the question. “No. Jon was funny and sometimes he could be really generous – but he was always too wild. That is not a ‘settling man’. I wonder if he’ll even be able to stay long.”
“Even with the free house and garden?? He’d have his pick of the single women.”
“Oh, he might get married. But that wouldn’t keep him, I’m guessing.”
Janni looked shocked. They had reached her door; she glanced back inside, then lowered her voice. “He wouldn’t… just leave?”
“I don’t think he knows his mind. He might have the best intentions, but…” Marie shrugged.
Lawry was washing up the breakfast dishes when Gordon Allen poked his head in at the kitchen door. Catching sight of Lawry at the sink, the old man hobbled in, already starting to describe his order. Not a man of small talk, Lawry thought.
“… and if you can use the old back and insides, that would be good.”
“Hi, Gordie – take a seat. Would you like tea? Is this about the dresser you wanted me to repair?”
“No, it’s not, son – weren’t you listening?” The old man rested his thin butt on the bench. “I bought an old rocker washer from that salvager who came through last month. It’s got a perfect cradle and the gears seem to be free of cracks – but the outside got broke somehow. The curved sides might be hard to rebuild, but you might be able to re-use part of them. I’m hoping to gift it to Sukey for her birthday.”
Ah, his daughter. She took in washing, and a rocker-washer would make much easier work.
“Well, I’ll have to look at it before I can give you a trade-price. Can I come by this afternoon? I have to go to town before mid-meal, but I’m free after that.”
“That would be fine, son.” Gordon was already up and away, hobbling out the door. He was the perfect cemetery custodian, despite his limp. He lived happily alone on the far side of Cooper Hill, unworried by the thought of bandits, bears or bogeymen.
A rocker-washer would be a challenge. Lawry smiled as he considered it. He’d seen a couple of those sketched out in old books, and once in a news sheet brought by a traveller. He heard they were restored to use when the worst of the Chaos had settled and people started to think about how to live better. The pictures he’d seen had been too hard to copy. Maybe he’d have better luck with this one and could make a few more.
Tossing the breakfast scraps to the chickens, he noticed the sundial was showing 10:30. His sense of time had been knocked off by sleeping in. He hurried to the shed, hitched Beast to the cart and led him across the large yard to the woodpiles. It was hot work stacking the flatbed, and he made sure to fill his canteen from the pump before heading into town. Drinking deeply, he had a sudden resurgence of tipsy lightheadedness. Damn his idiotic drinking! He laid the sack of potatoes on the seat, with the top tied to the footrail. The large truck tires, patched with spare rubber, wobbled more than usual. The left front needed inflating; he’d have to stop at the smith’s and use their airpump. The fact that Oak Crest Road was still a washboard from the rough winter didn’t help matters. Lawry was forced to slow Beast to a walk as much to avoid breaking an axle or strut as to keep from throwing up his coffee. Fran’s hayfields passed slowly by, followed by Lou’s corn. He could see Lou and his son at the far side of the field and he waved. This was the kind of morning that he lived for, if only the little nagging worry – and his headache – would subside.
The impromptu houses of the humble folk came into view. Lawry recognized the walnut stained planks he’d help pull out of the old library after it burned. Joseph Crane’s old mantelpiece was now a door header, which always amused Lawry to see. He tossed three potatoes to Lin, Brody and Shirl, and they waved and sang their thanks.
“Save it for the travellers,” he laughed. He didn’t need a performance. He steered Beast carefully down the main street, shooing the dogs, pigs and stray children aside with gentle nudges of his whip. The sunlight gleamed on the soft weathered wood buildings, and the scent of baking mixed with the coal smoke of Al’s smithy.
At the mill, he was happy to trade out the wood and potatoes for the full order; Marie had gotten ten pounds of oats and twenty of wheat. Shon was too rushed to regale Lawry with tales of last night’s drunken spree, for which Lawry was grateful. He hoisted the sacks into the cart bed and sat for a moment, watching the mill wheel and listening to the river. The Willette ran straight and deep here; a little more narrow than at Honeyvale where Marta’s ferry took traders across and down to Springfield. Up here, there was nothing to see on the other side but a lanky maple and alder forest springing up where the Burn had taken most of the cedars. He could hear the town behind him, muffled shouts and laughter… and old man Jesey cursing out his mule again. Lawry grinned, then frowned. If only Jon hadn’t… but it was evil to think that. It sure complicated things, though.
He heard the buzz of a crowd, and realized the Q&A had let out for mid-meal. He’d better move fast, to get this flour home in time! Then he caught sight of Marie walking along Main with Janni and Gert, a gaggle of children like sheep herded before them. He hailed them and stopped to lift his boys into the bed, nestled among the sacks, and to help Marie up onto the seat. Now the ride could be as leisurely as needed. He hugged her one-armed, and was thrilled that her smile was so warm. Maybe all was forgiven.
Just outside of town, he heard running boots behind, and the boys cried out, “Jay! Jay!” In a moment, the cart shook as Jared scrambled aboard. Lawry turned and grinned at his nephew. “What’s your hurry?”
“Could you drop me at Lou’s? I’m supposed to be helping with the weeding.” Jared, 14, was almost as tall as Lawry. There was more scuffling as Jared played roughly with the boys, who were giggling and yelling. “Did you get to hear Jon today? I sat through all morning! That’s why I’m late,” he said. “Jon said there’s a new town down in the Gold Hills –“
“Yes, he mentioned that last night.” Lawry startled at his own harsh voice. He softened. “Did he mention the buffalope?”
“Oh, yeah – he had to tell that one twice! And a mountain of glass bottles just over the mountains that are just over the hills… that’s far away, isn’t it?”
“Yup. That’s far away. Probably too far for salvage.”
“Miguel doesn’t think so. He was talking about getting a wagon train started – Jon thinks they could re-blaze an old logging trail and bring carts through. Think about all those bottles!! Even the broke ones Miz Mina could melt down for slag!” Miguel says he wants real windows in his house,” Jared finished with a laugh.
Lawry dropped his nephew at Lou’s, and told the boy to come by for supper. The rest of the day he spent repairing an ornate glass-front dresser that was missing the glass, but would look otherwise as good as new, once he mixed the right stain to turn the pine to rosewood.
That evening at dinner, Jared was still full of Jon’s ‘nautical adventures. Lou had been one of the debriefers, and let drop a few juicy morsels, apparently.
“Lou said Jon admitted he once went totally crazy and started hacking down an empty house! And dressing up in other people’s clothes!!” Jared was a bit hard to understand with his mouth full of turnip.
“Well, if they didn’t have a serum in him, I wouldn’t take a bet on that,” Marie commented with a laugh.
The house was oppressive with the heat of cooking, so they had moved the table into the back yard. No breeze stirred, but the cedar’s shade was cool. Matt and Jori wriggled on either side of Jared – as bouncy as baby chicks, Lawry thought fondly. Marie passed the big oak bowl of potatoes, and the smaller blue glass bowl of shredded goat cheese. Lawry took big helpings of each – he felt hollowed out after not being able to eat most of the day.
“What’s a se-er rum?”
“Nothing,” Lawry answered quickly, glancing at his wife. Do you want to get into that?
Marie distracted the boy with a chicken leg; the old Orp hen was not tender, but better than squirrel.
Jared veered onto another thought.
“Paul said they’d be starting another ‘naut school in five years… they will be sending out more ‘nauts when I’m 23 – I’d be old enough! Paul’s gonna sign up, too.”
“Jared!” Lawry set down his fork with a bang. “I thought you were apprenticing to the miller!”
“Well, you can’t just go off after you’ve learned a trade! Miller Shon will be depending on you then.”
Jared persisted, “Why can’t I become a ‘naut?”
Lawry could see himself ten years from now, waving goodbye to his favorite nephew. No!
“Training is tough, Jay. It’s five years of little trips, going out a little farther each time, learning how to survive. And only five get picked to go, after all that work. In Jon’s class, they only trained twenty; nine dropped out or were expelled, and two… were killed.”
“Killed in school? How?”
Lawry cleared his throat, glancing at the two boys who were luckily distracted by pudding. “They don’t say. ‘Naut school is pretty private. They don’t like the idea of just anyone going out on a Search. So what happens in the school stays there.”
“They have magic tools, huh?”
“Not magic.” Lawry stifled a chuckle. “Things like a geiger counter, a rifle with a little telescope, glasses that let you see in the dark, and lamps that run on the sun – they’re from the old time. We keep losing a few each Search, so that’s another reason they have to be careful who they send.”
“Was Jon the only one they sent?”
“No, don’t you remember the ceremony? You were 11 at the time. Five went out – so far, he is the only return. But it’s early; only three years. It’s possible that Garry, Jud, Mick and Lori will still come back.”
“They’d also get a hero’s welcome, too, huh?”
An unreasonable anger was building inside. Why did they enchant young kids with this wanderlust, and send them out into god-knows-what every ten years?? What was so damned important out there?? Lawry cleared the table and washed the dishes, refusing all offers of assistance. He felt too sour to be around others.
There was an almost palatable anticipation in the town, as everyone looked for the next ‘naut to arrive. A week passed with nothing more exciting than Jon escorting Shawna, the mayor’s daughter, to the Friday dance. Then Lori suddenly appeared at the medic’s, very gaunt and with her left arm hanging useless. She was immediately placed in quarantine, but her parents and brother spoke with her daily through the glass-paned isolation room as the town again buzzed with the second ‘naut’s return.
Lawry couldn’t hide a sense of desolation. How long before the town returned to normal? What if it never did? He tried to remember thirteen years back – he had been 11 – when the last ‘nauts had returned. But only two had – that was what he remembered most. Three simply had not come back, and three families, and many friends, had gone into a slow, extended mourning as the chances of return got slimmer and slimmer. The whole town grieved for at least a year, and the two other ‘nauts – Jim and Inger – had retreated into a kind of guilty isolation, as if it had been their fault. Jim had later moved to Grantsville, 35 miles away, and Inger had never married, becoming a kind of hermit. Lawry couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her in town. She certainly hadn’t been at Jon’s party.
That evening after the worst of the heat had eased, Lawry cut and brought a downed maple from the woods to the yard and began to split the rounds. Marie had put the boys to bed, and was raking out the chicken coop, carrying the soiled straw in the wheelbarrow over to the compost. Lawry glanced over and was startled to see her catch the rake on the coop door, then raise it as if she were going to throw it, before she stopped herself and bent over the barrow.
“Are you alright, Marie?”
She jerked upright, then turned with a smile. “Yes, just a long day, I guess.”
Always a long day recently, he thought. For both of us.
She sighed and he braced himself. She doesn’t want to hurt me. This is going to be about Jon.
“You know that Harvest caravan to Springfield?”
“The one the craft and farmers’ trade delegation plans every October?”
“Yeah. Well…” she turned to face him. “Have you ever thought about going with them?”
He blinked. “Me?”
“Not just you – all of us.”
“What – Matt and Jori, too?? Why?”
“I dunno – just to see it.”
“See what?” He’d lost the thread; where did Jon come in?
“Just the big city and another part of this country, and maybe another small town in between…” she trailed off, seeing his puzzlement and biting her lip in frustration. “Never mind. Doesn’t matter.”
He walked over to the coop. Her face was smudged; he pulled his handkerchief out and gently rubbed the dirt off.
“It does matter. But I don’t understand. Why do you want to see another town? This one is just fine.”
“It is not! It looks like a dog with mange! We don’t even have a proper main street – just a row of slightly bigger shacks!”
Marie’s voice ended in a shriek, and even she looked shocked. Lawry was stunned.
“What – what’s wrong with Main Street?” Where had that tirade come from?? Jon! It must have been Jon’s stories that had soured her. He’d never heard Marie complain before, about the town at least.
Marie turned back to the coop. “It’s small and dinky and… and just for once, I want to see a proper town!” Her shoulders curved forward, and he recognized her defeated stance. She would get like this at her folks’ place, after some battle over kids or cooking or… just anything. He hesitated, then placed his hand lightly on her shoulder. What could he say?
“Marie, I know you wouldn’t want me to leave the crops… do you want to go… alone? To Springfield?”
He fought to keep his hand from clenching. He wanted to break Jon into very little bits right now. Springfield was just Martinsville bigger – and probably dirtier and more worn out, with fifteen hundred residents! He’d heard Kerm talk about it last year after the trading delegation got back – didn’t sound like much. But there was no telling Marie, when she got hard and set like this. But what if she went and didn’t come back?
She stepped away from his hand, turned and attempted a smile. “No, of course not. I couldn’t leave the boys, or the canning – if this is another odd summer like last year, even setting the trip into October won’t be far enough past harvest. Only singles are going on this trip – and the widowed.” A spasm of pain crossed her face. “I should have gone before we got married, so I could’ve said I’d done it.” Both of them remembered why that wouldn’t have worked – Lila, now five years buried up at Cooper Hill. Life shat on them in so many ways.
Jori’s thin wail coming from the house ended the argument; Marie hurried in the back door. Lawry stood a moment, feeling like a tree that had been eaten hollow from the inside. Damn Jon Jimpson to the bottom of Hell! A small voice suggested it could have been worse if Jon hadn’t gone to ‘naut school, but Lawry pushed it down vehemently and stormed into his workshop.
He hid out in his workshop all the next day, telling himself it would do no good to reason with Marie in that mood. He planed a curly maple board, admiring the intricate swirls. Why couldn’t she be pleased with the beauty that surrounded them?? She was a good woman and he had never regretted their lovemaking and subsequent marriage, but perhaps he should have gotten to know her better. These moods of hers hit him in the gut like a mule kick.
The rich aroma of cedar and pine mixed with the vinegary tang of wood stains. Dust motes shimmered in sun shafts; the plane whispered. This tiny workshop was almost filled with his worktable, the shelf of tools and the two pieces he was working on. He needed to double the space or move down to Morgan’s old town shop, and he needed to do one of them soon. Being within earshot of Marie and the boys for five years had been worth the cramp, but was he squeezing out opportunities? And would there be fewer fights if he worked in town? But hadn’t the fights had mostly started after Jon got back? Jon was the spider cleverly weaving his spell on her… the plane jinked and gouged a strip from the maple. Lawry cursed. Jon was spoiling his work, too!
The next two weeks continued the hot, sunny weather, and began to put a strain on irrigation. Every last bit of washwater went onto the crops. Farmers began mixing urine straight into buckets of water, to increase the volume, and mule trains were sent up over Cooper Hill to capture kegs of Hadley River water. It was normal, but still tricky. Lawry kept a worried eye on the garden as he finished up several woodworking projects. The town seemed to be settling back into the routine, albeit with one ear cocked for any sign of the other ‘nauts. Lori was due to come out of quarantine and be feted in four days. The delegation to Springfield had been picked and were discussing their preparations, with no further comment from Marie. But Lawry knew better than to think she had forgotten. The knot in his chest was growing as big as the heads of cabbage.
The rocker washer was just about finished – it was a beautiful contraption, gleaming resin-soaked wood and shining brass bolts. The brass would tarnish, but right now it was a work of art, in Lawry’s mind. He could ride it up to old Gordon in two days, once the resin coat was fully cured. Maybe he could ask Marie if she wanted one for herself… he had no clue what she really wanted. Would he ever?
Storm clouds began building on Friday, and on Saturday Lawry decided to get the washer up to the cemetery before the weather broke. At first light, he loaded the washer on the cart and tied it securely. It might be slow moving up the lightly-travelled path so as not to wreck all his hard work. It was close to noon when he finally pulled into the cemetery. The sky was black along the southern horizon and the wooden headboards, and beyond them Gordon’s house of gray fieldstone glowed white as sun glared down on the field, as if furious at being pushed aside. The humidity was intense; Lawry was soaked and Beast was dripping sweat.
Gordon helped Lawry take the washer off the cart and into the shed by the house.
“You did a fine bit of work here, youngster,” Gordon exclaimed as they got it safely under the roof. “Sukey is gonna be just beside herself!” Obviously he was giving himself equal credit, but Lawry didn’t mind. “Come inside for a drink before you go back.”
Lawry accepted gratefully; he lead Beast over to the trough before following Gordon into the house. Inside was blessedly cool and dark; the front room, both kitchen and living area, had three windows but only one of the heavy shutters was opened and the varnished table near it was shimmery with sunlight. Gordon brought a pitcher and two cups over to the table; the ale must have been fresh from the root cellar; it was cold and delicious.
When Lawry had taken his first few gulps, Gordon leaned forward, his expression grim. “I’m not one to spook at shadows,” he said, “but I’m almost sure there’s a band of thieves over the hill.”
“What??” Lawry put down his cup. “Have you seen them?”
Gordon shrugged. “Nope. Just smelled the smoke and heard the echoes of them rustling around in the hollow just past Boyd’s Peak.”
Squinting out the window, Lawry could just about see the little rocky outcrop named for Boyd Hardy, who’d been thrown by a horse from it and died about 40 years ago. Lawry had only been up that road once at fifteen, on a long trip to plead for planting seeds from Spruceton, after most of Martinsville’s spring crop had been washed out. He barely remembered the scrub-tangled dip in the ground just past the peak, but he recalled his uncle’s warning about being alert for thieves at that spot. He remembered being hungry that year, too. Spruceton had been grudging, but it was enough. Barely.
He didn’t want to distrust the man, but Gordon’s house – the cemetery guard house – had been built generations ago as an outpost of the town, and thick as it was, would any such far-away sounds reach? And could it have been noises from Martinsville? Echoes were tricky that way. But he didn’t say that.
“Do you want me to tell the sheriff for you? I’ll be in town today.”
The old man moved his cup around the table. “Aw, I don’t know that I want to call out the volunteers ‘til I know a bit more.” Obviously, he wasn’t all that sure. “Maybe just one or two scouts.”
“We don’t do it like that, you know, Gordie. Safety in numbers.” But the image of Jon creeping through the underbrush came unbidden to him. His renegade heart leapt. Jon would love to scout this! Jon was bored and cranky in his free homestead, chafing at the town niceties. And if Jon was ambushed…?
“Well! I’ll be going back, then.” Lawry jumped up, startled at the statement that came out almost a shout. What the hell was happening to him? He gulped the last bit of ale and shook Gordon’s hand. “I hope Sukey is really happy with your gift.”
The drive home was a pitched inner battle, like a ferocious town council of partisan thoughts. Jon would jump at this chance! Jon had no right, nor Lawry, to go rogue like that. Dangling vine maples slashed at his head; sun flickered and jumped in thickets. Time to re-cut this trail. Jon would thank him for telling him about this. Jon was the only person in town with enough training to handle a scout trip. Lawry was a nasty sonofabitch for even toying with the idea. How could all these statements be true? By the time Lawry got back to his land, he had a throbbing headache.
He felt chilled when he discovered Marie had invited Jon to dinner that night. It was almost like a set-up, but he didn’t know by whose hand. He watched dully as she put a slab of the salt pork on to boil with cabbage and potatoes; it probably was the last hock of the winter. His resentment bubbled like the water on the stove. Luckily the boys were loudly racing around the table; their exhuberance was a welcome distraction.
Jon arrived about a half-hour early, just as the storm’s rumbles turned to pattering rain. Lawry tapped a small keg of Marsha’s golden ale and the three adults sat on the kitchen porch, within earshot of the boiling dinner, watching the boys race around in the cooling downpour.
“Rain came not a minute too soon,” Jon said, leaning his chair back and lifting his ale in toast.
“It’s needed, certainly. I suppose this is too quiet for you, after – after your adventure?” Marie asked.
Jon looked down, considering, then shook his head. “No – it’s a nice rest after a long trek. One can’t spend all the time running away from bandits.” They laughed, though Lawry’s laugh was forced.
“Funny you mention that –“ he spoke before thinking. “Old Gordie thought he heard some bandits up past Boyd’s Peak the last few days.” Biting his lip, he felt his chest tightened. He’d done it now.
And Jon looked as eager as a hound dog, “Really? Just up over the ridge? What did the sheriff say?”
just as Marie cried, “Lawry - you didn’t mention that! That’s too close for comfort! You should have said!”
“Gordie’s not sure he’s right; it’s just some noise and maybe a woodfire’s smoke… he didn’t want to get out the volunteers until he was more sure. It’s nothing to worry about, I’m sure.” Damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
Marie shook her head. “Well, I’m keeping the boys a lot closer to me, and I don’t want you going too far off, until somebody finds out for sure! There’s only the Davidsons between us and the cemetery.”
Lawry risked a side glance at Jon; he was sipping his ale, looking off into the woods. Finally, Jon commented, “It wouldn’t take much… just wander up there quietly; wouldn’t even have to get too close. I got pretty good at sensing… anything I wanted to avoid.”
There – he’d taken the hint. Lawry felt as miserable as when he baited the mole traps. But – like Jon said, he’d gotten good at surviving, and who else would be able to scout out something that might be a danger to the town? Why did the ale taste sour? Lawry set it aside. Dinner was subdued, and even the boys seemed to recognize something was wrong.
That evening, in bed, Lawry held Marie against his chest, feeling her breaths. Were hers as constricted as his felt?
“Marie – I don’t want him to go alone. I’ll tell the sheriff tomorrow.”
She sighed. “It won’t make any difference. He’s probably already on his way up there tonight.”
“No! In the rain? You think? Would he just –” But of course, he would. “He should know that’s not how we do it. There’s safety in numbers.”
“But he just proved there’s also safety in singles.”
Lawry couldn’t answer that. But his dreams that night were wild and dark.
The next day, as the storm passed to the north, leaving puddles and dripping trees, he did go into town, hunting down Sheriff Hal. But only after he’d broken a chair spindle, gouged two holes out of a nice pine board and slammed a hammer down on his finger. The day was ruined, and maybe he was cursed. Not that he was supertitious. But he needed to get free of this.
Hal was mending a book, in the small room that housed all the books rescued from the old library fire. He agreed to send a group out to Boyd’s Peak, and he accepted Lawry’s volunteering to be one of them. Every time Lawry tried to bring up Jon, it stuck in his throat. In the end, he figured he’d just wait and see.
It was late afternoon before they were riding up Cooper Hill, through dappled shade on the vined-over dirt road to the cemetery. With Lawry was Gerry, Hal, old Ron the tanner, and Margaret, Gene’s daughter who, at twenty, had surpassed all the other militia candidates this year. All of them had long hardwood pikes, and there were a few knives in belts, and Gerry had his short bow, in case they met resistance. They joked as they rode, but when they stopped to get an update from Gordon, they treated his descriptions with serious consideration. A five minute canter up to Boyd’s Peak, then slowing and moving as quietly as a group of five riders could. They paused where the road began to dip down.
“There’s an old fire smell, but nothing fresh – ya think?” Hal asked quietly.
Nods all around. Lawry picked up the tang of washed-down campfire; he relaxed slightly. They road about 25 feet into the valley, the horses picking their way carefully down the pebble-slick path. The smell grew stronger and Hal signaled the others to dismount. Lawry reluctantly held the horses as the others crept into the dripping underbrush, but in a few minutes, he heard them speaking in normal tones – so no one must be there. A rustle and the scuffing of boots, and they came back through the underbrush. Maggie was holding a partly burnt bone; looked like deer.
“There was a crew, but they cleared off,” Hal said, taking his reins again. “Maybe there about a week; didn’t even leave much garbage. But definitely about five campers.”
“Can – can I go look?” Lawry knew he sounded like a boy, but he had to know, and it was too late now to mention Jon. Giving Maggie Beast’s reins, Lawry ducked and scrambled into the campsite.
The firepit was stone-ringed and full of wet ash. A deer had been sectioned and most of it cooked; the legs and head were off to one side, not yet gnawed by animals. Tamped-down brush in a ring around the firepit seemed to suggest at least five sleepers. Lawry quickly inspected each area, looked as far as he could in to the dense thickets, but there was nothing at all that showed Jon had been there. No broken brambles leading to a dead body, no fresh-dug grave or discarded shoe that he could recognize – nothing. He’d been crazy to think it. Guilt, relief and fear washed over him like bursts of storm – Jon had not been here, or if he had, he’d left with no trace. Probably he was back at his house and getting ready for dinner. Lawry rushed back up to the road, feeling a silly grin spread on his face.
“Okay – well, it was worth checking out, right?” he asked. They assured him it was.
“I’ll be sending a group up around here more regular,” Hal said as they road home.
When Jon hadn’t been seen for three days, the speculation that he had snugged up with a woman turned to more serious talk. Lawry, in the process of moving his workshop into town, had ample chance to hear the rumors and speculations. The leaden feeling returned; he reminded himself that there had been no sign of Jon at the campsite. Which meant very little. He teetered on panic the first two days, watching Marie for signs of worry. As the talk turned, she did get more serious, but seemed to have forgotten the conversation about the bandits.
Finally, the pressure inside was worse than over-fermented ale. He caught her alone in the afternoon, and blurted, “Do you remember talking to Jon about the… about Gordie seeing…” It caught in his throat again.
“Yes, I remember,” she said quietly. “I figured if you’d seen anything, we would have heard.”
Lawry nodded emphatically. “Yes. True. I looked hard at the site, and there was no sign at all that he’d been there.” He was sweating now. Did he want to know what she thought?
She smiled, though her eyes were somber. “My guess is he used it as an excuse to get out of town.”
She chuckled wryly. “Jon never was the settling type. I’m guessing he realized that he’d have to stay here out of gratitude for all the free stuff, and he was already beginning to feel smothered. He figured he’d look like a hero if he disappeared while going after bandits.”
Lawry blinked. Jon – run off?? Not dead in the bushes somewhere? Was that possible? The new scene imposed itself on his memory of events – a weird twin to his first scenario – all the same bits adding up to something wildly different. Even if it wasn’t true, Marie believed it. He felt like he wanted to scream, like a boiler bursting. Then Marie wrapped her arms around him, and he was aware of her warm hair just under his chin. He hugged her fiercely and closed his eyes. Saved.
Except that the Lawry who had found salvation was not the Lawry he had been. Jon had returned with wilderness, strangeness…and the strangest of all had turned out to be… inside Lawry. And once you’d experienced wilderness, there was no going back.