Saturday Novel: Fountains of Mercy: Chapter 2

A few months after the electrical storms and Carrington Event, more or less, on the Peilov holdings upriver from the Unnamed City, a family gets along at getting along.

Chapter Two: Between the Storms

 

Susannah “Basil” Peilov smiled at the guests enjoying breakfast at Crownpoint’s pavilion. “Can I get you anything else?”

The white-haired man shook his head, his mouth full. His younger friend, or perhaps son, lifted the tea flask, checking. “Nope, thanks. Still pretty heavy.”

“Then I’ll leave you in peace.” She collected their empty bun basket and returned to the kitchen area.

Tildie, her brown-haired sister-wife, noticed the empty basket. “Need a refill?”

“No. They’re set. May need more tea in a few minutes.” She tapped the last crumbs into the compost, slid the used napkin into the hamper, and tucked the basket into the sterilizer. Kos insisted on keeping the old boiling water dish-cleaning system, and Basil could see where it made sense, although she hated the steam that filled the kitchen when she opened the loading and unloading doors, especially in summer. He should have to empty and refill it on an August evening after we’ve been cooking all day, she snorted. It might be enough to change his mind. Or not. Once Kos got an idea in his head, nothing short of a message from the Lord could shake it loose.

Tildie turned back to cutting up the last of the beef. “We’re going to have to switch to vegetarian after today. There’s a little ham and dry-cure sausage for breakfasts and sandwiches, but no more ‘meat’ meat until the fall.” She scooped the strips into a large bowl. “Except for chicken. We still have chicken, but only enough for once a week, I think. Unless we eat the layers.”

“We can do air-casseroles and salads, with fresh breads,” Basil suggested. “Those are cool and light, but tasty. The herbs are kicking in, and we have lots of butter and eggs. I’ll see if Kos wants to grind and bag some of that flour-maize blend for drop crusts and individual pies.”

“Do that,” Tildie said, adding a handful of fresh basil and thyme to the meat before stirring it. After hesitating with one hand between two bottles, she reached for a third and drizzled a dollop of flavored vinegar into the bowl, then stirred with enough force to flip bits of beef strip into the air. “Don’t worry about sparing the flour. Two more reservations cancelled this morning. The messages are in Kos’s office.”

I should be upset. But we need a little time for harvest, or else we won’t have anything to eat ourselves, let alone to serve to guests. Basil measured two spoons of tea leaves into the strainer and set more water on the burner, adjusting the flame to medium heat. She glanced back into the dining area, but the men appeared content to work on the rest of their bacon and eggs and fruit. The older one pointed to the view out the large window.

Basil agreed with what she thought he was saying. The huge panes of glass let guests see the lush, gently rolling land stretching west from Crownpoint to the edge of the Triangle Mountain foothills. The settlement planners and colonists had hidden the town and settlements in folds of land or under canopies of trees, giving the illusion that no sapient creatures lived in the bucolic landscape. Basil imagined she could see the white and creamy spots of flocks of sheep and shahma on the distant hills. Kos Peilov’s holdings remained some of the prettiest on ColPlat XI, in Basil’s opinion. Well, nothing can make a spaceport and administrative city pretty, she reminded herself, no matter how creative the designers think their plans are. Thank you Lord that Kos brought me out of there.

The whirr of the big mixer distracted Basil from her musings. Tilde had announced yesterday that she’d be making yeast bread, two-dozen loaves worth, and seemed to be making good on her promise. Basil pulled two crates of eggs out of the cooler, counted fifty, and set them on a tray so they wouldn’t roll off the counter. By the time she finished and glanced back at the dining room, the men seemed to be through eating. She dusted off her hands and left the kitchen.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked, approaching the table.

The older man got to his feet. “No, thank you. Everything is good, but we need to be on our way.”

“Yes, thank you,” his companion agreed.

She bobbed a little curtsey. “You are most welcome. Please come back.”

“Oh, never fear, we will,” the younger man assured her. “We’re staying north this year. Probably come back in a month or so when the leaves start to turn.” His companion nodded and they left. Basil waited until she saw them round the corner, out of sight of the dining room, before getting a roller tub and clearing away their plates and linen. They’d been the last to eat this morning, so once she finished with the dishes, she could reset four tables for dinner.

Assignment completed for the moment, Basil went to Kos’s office and sat down, letting her feet and back rest for a few minutes. She’d gotten pregnant again. Sabrina will scold me, the young woman groaned. But I’m not taking pills, I hated how the implants muddled my head, and pregnancy doesn’t bother me like it does Tildie and Karina. She stuck her tongue out at the senior wives. Now, what sort of guest list do we have?

Basil turned on the data screen, logged in, and read through the next week’s reservations. That’s not many. At least they still had guests, she reminded herself. Two of the resorts up in the mountains had closed, turning their employees out to finish making up their indenture payments on their own, because so few people had come to visit once word spread that they’d not gotten their tech back up and running. Who wanted to pay for holo-skiing and virtual wildlife viewing if all you could offer was fresh air and a blank screen? Farm stays and real food attracted people to Crownpoint. Thank you Lord, holy one, for that. Thank you that I’m not trying to pay off my indenture on my own. Kos had paid half her fee when she agreed to marry him, before she realized that she’d be the junior of three wives.

A light hand tapped on the door frame and grey-blond Karina poked her head in. “Good! Do you mind switching jobs? Kos is mowing the hay for winter beast food, and it’s making me all sniffy and itchy.”

Basil smiled. “Not at all! Weeding and gathering more herbs?”

“And picking the beans. I think someone snuck a replicator into the bean patch.” She jammed her hands onto her hips, annoyed. “I know we cleaned them out not four days ago, and already the beans overfloweth.”

No one’s that mean, Basil thought. “Herbs, weeds, and beans. Are we going to be drying the tomatoes and white root?”

“The white root, yes. I have an idea for preserving the tomatoes, at least for this batch. If Tildie agrees.” Karina might be the senior wife but Tildie ran the kitchens, and woe unto anyone who trespassed into her domain. Basil turned off the display screen, then stood up and went to the laundry room. She traded her work apron for a hat, made sure that the linens in the dryer had not finished yet, and clocked out. Every hour is another hour closer to freedom, she reminded herself. Working in the restaurant and guesthouses counted. Working to feed her family did not. What a stupid way to run accounts, she thought yet again. Which summarized how ColPlat LTD operated, in her opinion.

She gathered baskets, floats, and tools from the shed, then went to the herb garden to gather the plants that shared her name. Kos let her have five kinds of basil, some for cooking, some for decoration and garnish. The enormous herb garden would have been too much for one woman, but the wives shared turns and Kos and the boys helped when they could.  For all that the administrators grumbled about Kos and his “retrograde attitude,” he did his share and more to keep the guesthouse and farms running. Basil sighed, the pungent tang of the lemon basil reminding her of the puckered face of the corporate welfare inspector. He kept poking and prodding, trying to get me and Tildie to say something mean about Kos. I like being the junior wife, I like working on the farm and in the gardens, and I don’t want to re-indenture so I can get more education. What’s wrong with wanting a family? I grew up on Deepak’s Planet, I’ve seen the holos about what women can do if we want to. I just don’t want to do that. She preferred changing diapers and bottle-feeding lambs to studying calculus and warp engineering.

 

A month later, Basil looked at the rows and rows and mounds of beans in the preserving shed, tears filling her eyes. The beans should have been dry. They should have been ready to put into sacks and store in the moisture-proof cabinets. But no. Five rainy days and a failed dehumidifier left almost half the beans moldy and the other half at least a week from being ready. And Carl, Karina’s oldest son, had gotten terribly sick from eating some of the canned tomatoes. She’d told him to stay away from the jars that she’d set aside, but he’d popped the seal and eaten half the jar anyway. “The seal didn’t take, and it’s bulging a little. If we don’t eat it, it’ll go to waste,” he’d said, just before he started turning green. Kos had wanted to take Carl to the medical center but Karina vetoed her husband. Thank you Lord that Carl recovered, thank you. Everything seemed to be going wrong.

“What’s wrong, Baa,” Kos asked, coming in behind her.

She turned, trying to hide her weepies. “I made a mistake somewhere and half the beans are a loss.” She’d learned from the start that honesty was the best response.

He stroked his long red beard and considered the piles. Kos picked up one of the moldy beans, scraped a little fuzz off, and sniffed it. “I think we can salvage these as seeds. Pick them out, save the least-rotten ones, and shell them. We’ll vac bag the results, and the moldy bits will go in the compost.

“Yes Kos,” she said. He patted her shoulder, turning to go. The dam broke and she burst into tears. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Shhh, shhh, it happens. All the tech is having problems, losing the dehumidifier’s gauge is not your fault.”

“And Carl got sick, and the white roots are small, and waaahh.” She tried to calm down and failed.

Crazy Kos put his arm around her shoulders. “Shhh,” he repeated. “What else?”

“I won’t be able to help with planting because I’m pregnant, and it’s supposed to rain tomorrow, and how can we get the fleeces without the clippers?” They’d been left on the chargers over the summer, and the electrical storm had ruined them.

Her husband patted her again. “Rain happens. We have a week before the quinley starts to deteriorate, so one day of rain is no disaster. And I’m surprised the clippers didn’t fail earlier, as overloaded as the shahma wool is. When are you due?” His smooth, quiet low voice soothed her enough that she stopped crying and sniffed.

“Late March or early April.”

“Before the gardens need much work, then. That’s just fine. You and the sheep can lamb together.”

She wiped her eyes and nose with a corner of her apron. “Yes, Kos.”

He helped her start sorting the beans, at least getting the good ones shaken out and put back into the dehumidifier. Kos tucked his beard out of the way and adjusted some of the wires. “I can work it around the bad spot, I think, and just go on timer instead of moisture sensing. You’ll have to stay near and check on things,” he cautioned.

“I can do that.”

“Good.” He smiled, blue eyes bright, and kissed the top of her head. “Life happens, Baa. For good and for bad.” Kos left her to work.

The rain proved to be two drops, spaced a meter apart. Kos, Carl, David, John, and the others, along with Tildie, started the quinley harvest that afternoon, after the rabbi blessed everything. Tildie drove the rover with the hopper in the back, catching the overflow from the big harvester. The first year Basil had been at Crownpoint, Tildie’d explained to Basil that once they got the machine running and in the field, it worked better if they kept it moving. Basil, astonished to see where food actually came from, needed no encouragement to stay out of the way. The big machines scared her: she’d escaped the government housing on Deepak’s Planet uninjured and intended to stay that way. Instead, Basil sorted and shelled beans, cooked with Karina, and drove the small trolley, moving the last of the old grain out of the storage bins and into the mill shed for grinding, in order to make room for the new.

Kos and the older women liked wheaten bread best, but Basil preferred quinley. The flavor, a little sour, reminded her of yoghurt sauce. She’d tried to make the sauce here, on Solana, but the local yeasties failed to cooperate and the milk rotted instead. At least they could still make cheese, though. Basil loved toasted cheese on quinley bread. Quinley flour produced a heavy, dense loaf, filling but not fancy. Filling is good, Basil thought as she watched the milling machine whirring away. Filling keeps your stomach happy. Survival rations never filled her up. Quinley bread did.

Apples and nuts also filled you up, and as Kos and the men finished the wheat harvest, their daughters and wives picked apples and other fruit, along with pecans. Once terraforming finished, the colony founders had planted tissue-culture trees, using accelerants to push them to maturity in one growing season. Fifty years on, those trees had begun dying, but their slow-grown successors filled in the gap, now old enough to produce good quality nuts. Basil supervised the children as they gathered up the fallen nuts, once the adults had shaken and beaten them down from the trees. “But I can get up there and throw them down,” Tildie’s middle son Michael protested when she made him stay on the ground.

“And you will throw them at your brothers and sisters. I’ve seen you do it,” Basil reminded him. “There are plenty to pick here on the ground.”

“Awwww.”

She forestalled his complaint with a wink. “I have sweet cakes for whoever gets the most nuts by three,” she announced. The half-dozen children set to work with a will, while Basil watched and pulled the hoverbarrow along the row of trees, stopping to mark dead or lightly bearing trees for possible removal and replacement. An hour later, she hefted the bags. Tamara won, but not by much, and so Basil gave her the largest sweet cake, then passed out the rest.

“No thank you, Mom Baa,” Kossina told her. “I’m not hungry.”

Concerned, Basil brushed the little girl’s light-brown curls out of the way and felt her forehead. It didn’t seem feverish.  Kossina never turns down sweets. What’s wrong? “Do you feel alright, Kossina?”

“I’m fine, Mom Baa, I’m just not hungry.”

Basil watched the girl closely for the rest of the afternoon, but she showed no signs of illness. In fact, she worked harder than the others, going out and coming back with more nuts than the two younger ones combined. Basil shrugged and decided to tell Karina but not worry about it.

Kossina ate a normal supper. Karina also shrugged. “Children. Maybe she’s growing again. That always makes their appetites strange.”

The same thing happened the next day, and Tamara also turned down the sweet cake snack. “No thank you, Mom Baa. I’m still full from lunch.”

That I can believe. You ate at least half of Kossina’s apple chips, easily. “Very well.”

That night, Kos called the children and adults together for a quick meeting. “There are reports that dardogs are loose in the area. Baa, take a rifle with you and don’t let the children get out of sight. As soon as we finish this last repair work, David and I will join you tomorrow.”

All the children’s eyes got big and Basil shivered. She’d heard the dardogs calling the winter before, when the heavy snows began. They sounded like the ancient wolves of Earth, except different. Dardogs used high frequency to communicate as well as audible calls, and their howls sounded sharper and meaner than recordings Basil had heard of the canines of earth. Basil had once wondered how anyone could kill a sentient animal, until she saw holos of what happened to a pregnant woman from Donatello Bend, north of Crownpoint, caught alone and unarmed by a pack. You can’t outrun eight dardogs. You shoot one and hope the rest stop to eat it. After that Basil and Tildie had learned how to shoot.

The next morning Basil, blast-rifle over her shoulder, trundled out with the older children. Tildie stayed home with the youngest ones, cleaning the house and storage spaces in preparation for winter. Basil did her best to act calm, trying not to jump at every noise. They should be safe in the wood lot and orchard, after all. Dardogs hunted from cover, and Kos and the others kept the brush down despite what the administrators claimed was best for the soil. Once in the pecan grove, Basil walked back and forth, trying to make certain the children remained in sight and keeping them closer to the hoverbarrow. It wasn’t until she guided the barrow to the end of the pecan grove and didn’t see Kossina that she realized she hadn’t heard the girl for several minutes.

“Michael, where’s Kossina?” she asked when the boy came to empty his sack into the wagon.

“Over there.” He pointed through the shimmer of the force fence to a dense copse of native trees and brush. “She went to get a snack.”

Oh no! Basil felt light-headed and clamped one hand on the hoverbarrow to keep her balance. How’d she get through the shield? There must be a hole. Oh no. She wanted to run, find the hole, and get Kossina, but she didn’t dare leave the other children. She hesitated, torn, rocking from foot to foot. Lord, please, please holy one may Kos and the boys come soon. Please, please, protect Kossina, please help me, Lord, please, she implored.

Basil kept the children within a few meters of the barrow despite their protests. Finally, after an agony of worry and fear, the girl reappeared, dragging her nut sack. “Kossina! Don’t run off like that,” Basil scolded, pouncing on her.

“But Mom Baa, I was hungry.”

That makes no sense. Basil scolded her a little more. “Pour what you have into the barrow,” she ordered at last. “And stay here.”

A cascade of pale brown, round things poured out of the bag. “Oh, Kossina, what are those?” Basil sighed, annoyed as well as angry and relieved. Now I have to sort through and get rid of all those things. Child, I’m going to take away your holo privileges for this, disobeying all of your father’s and my instructions.

“They’re good!”

Basil sent Kossina off to work with Michael and began tossing the native seeds out of the cart. She’d just started when she heard the whirring clank of the old transport wagon. The shimmer at the end of the grove dropped away as Kos and David turned off the field so they could come in. I need to tell them about the gap, she remembered.

She waited until David walked up, not trusting the children out of her sight. “David, Kossina found a gap in the shielding around the grove and orchard,” she reported.

Kos’s oldest son smoothed his fluffy red mustache. Stocky like Tildie rather than tall like his father, David had inherited Kos’s steady temper and way. “That’s not good. Do you know where?”

“No. Kossina found it.”

“I’ll go get her to show me, then and see about fixing it.” He strode off, one hand resting on the stock of his rifle.

Kos appeared, waving from between two trees. “Baa, come here,” he called. “I need a hand.”

Trusting David to take care of things, she went to the transport and found Kos pulling two large baskets out of the back. “Lunch for you and the children.” She picked up one, and he retrieved a cold drinks case, following her. “Any trouble?”

“No, nothing yet.” They walked around the trees and she saw Kossina stuff something into her mouth. “Kossina! What are you doing?”

The little brunette startled and tried to swallow. Instead she choked. David, coming behind her, heard the sound and Basil’s yelp, and grabbed his sister. He took one look and began squeezing her middle. Something popped out of Kossina’s mouth and she gasped, then burst into tears.

“Kossina Deborah Peilov what were you eating?” Basil demanded.

“Th—, the nuts, Mom Baa. The good ones, from over there,” and she pointed to the native trees in the distance. “Michael told me about them last year. They’re sweet.”

Horror stricken, Basil stared at the child. “You’ve been eating native plants?” She turned to Kos. “We’ve got to get her to the medical center.”

He stroked his beard, frowning. “Maybe not, Baa. Kossina,” he turned to his daughter. “Kossina, how long have you been eating the nuts?”

She sniffed and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “Three days, Da. Since we started here. And Michael ate them every day last fall.”

Kos straightened up. “Since you are both still alive, the nuts seem to be harmless.”

Basil gave her husband a shocked look. She wanted to argue, but the adults had an agreement—no fighting in front of the children. She bit her tongue and carried the lunch hampers back to the cart. There she found Michael eating the nuts she’d thrown out of the trolley. “Michael, don’t,” she began.

Kos, coming behind her, interrupted. “Don’t ruin your lunch, young man.”

“Yes, Da.” The boy went back to work.

Kos picked up one of the nuts from the hoverbarrow and inspected it. As he rubbed the light brown ball, the hull came off in his hand, like a bit of paper. He sniffed the kernel inside and nibbled it as Basil gaped at him, aghast. Then he ate it and tried a second one. “These are sweet, almost like harij bread nuts, but not as mealy.”

“But Kos,” Basil whispered, “the rules. We can’t consume native species unless they’ve been approved by the corporate administrators.”

He gave her a stern look. “Basil, we’ll discuss this later. For now let the children eat if they wish, and gather these things if they wish. They cause no harm, and if the Lord saw fit to send them, we should make use of them.” He ate another of the thin-hulled nuts. “Now, where is the gap in the fence shield?”

“Kossina and Michael know,” she told him again.

That evening, after the youngest children had gone to sleep, Kos called a meeting of the adults and near adults. Basil, Tildie, and Karina sat at the table, while David, Bethany, and John stood near by. Carl had gone out to help the neighbor, in case the dardogs really had come down early from the hills. The familiar click of Karina’s knitting needles provided a soothing background as Kos opened up the harvest files and financial records. “We need to make some decisions,” he began. “First, let us pray.”

After thanking the Lord for harvest and family, and asking for wisdom and guidance, Kos began. “The harvest has gone well, so far. The sheep and shahma are fine, for now, and the dairy cows and chickens have perked up with the cooler weather. However, as usual, the number of guests at the restaurant and guesthouses are declining. I anticipate that once the leaves finish dropping, we will close all but one of the guest houses and shift cooking to the smaller kitchen.”

Everyone nodded. They’d expected something like this, Basil knew. It’s the end of travel season, at least until the rain shifts to snow.

“However, in light of some news from New Benin and other places, I want to change what we are doing.” He raised one hand, “We will be skirting the edges of the corporation’s regulations. I know, believe me I know. I like their visits as much as you do. But survival is more important than paperwork.”

David leaned forward. “Survival, Da?”

“There’s been another solar storm. It caught the southern hemisphere last night. Not as strong as the one this summer, but they lost more equipment.”

John, a male copy of his mother Karina, grunted. “Not good, Da. Especially since, from what I hear, we’ve only gotten two-thirds of the equipment back up since midsummer. Do you know how much warning they got down there?”

“No precise numbers yet, but rumor says less than we had back in the summer, when all the satellites still worked.”

Basil blinked and glanced at Tildie, hesitating before asking, “I thought there were spares in orbit, powered down, just in case? Communications, weather, defense, navigation, all of them had pre-orbited replacements.”

Kos and David both shrugged. “Not all the spares survived. Navigation’s already tricky,” David said. “Heard that from Sabrina’s daughter Molly, the sea pilot. Air pilots having the same trouble. That’s why shipping’s gotten slow—can’t fly some places in low weather because the nav signals can’t be trusted and the Company doesn’t have enough land units in place yet. Some of the programmable harvesters went wonky, too, up in the northern plains.”

“Timber cutters, too.” John added.

Kos raised his hand, taking over the discussion. “This matters to us for two reasons. One, because it means prices for some things will go up, delivery will take longer, and may be less reliable. Second, and more important, without the satellites we lose solar weather observations and we won’t know when the next storm will hit. And there will be one.”

Karina paused as she switched yarn colors, then resumed knitting. “Kos, what makes you certain?”

“I just am.” Basil knew that tone and shivered a little. He’d had a vision of some kind. “Without warning, we won’t have time to protect the tech. And what does get protected, just like now, will wear out faster and we’ll have a hard time getting parts until the Corporation sends more.” He turned off the screen and tapped the printouts. “While we still have machinery, we are going to start making tools that do not need electricity. And we are going to get more livestock, horses and mules and geld some of the calves to raise as oxen. The Krehbiel family is willing to trade animals and instruction for labor and fleeces. And some of Tildie’s seed cakes,” he smiled.

Considering what some people have offered to do in exchange for Tildie’s cakes, let alone for the recipe, it sounds fair to me, Basil smiled to herself. She’d waxed the entire restaurant kitchen floor by hand for half a seed cake.

Then she realized what else would fail. “Kos, do you think we’ll lose all the domestic tech as well?” Her voice quavered and she swallowed hard, suddenly scared.

“I do. And we, that is all of us, may well lose the industrial tech, including things like the big looms and extruders, the food processors and tool makers.”

Basil felt faint and sick both. No more clothes? No more mixing machines, or floor cleaners, or carpet scrubbers? No more clothes washers to do the hard work? And how would they save food, or grind grain, or preserve meat and fruit without the vacuum packing equipment? She escaped the slums of Deepak’s Planet for this? The knitting click stopped and she felt Karina and Tildie taking her hands. Kos got up and walked around the table, resting his own calloused, warm hands on her shoulders.

“We’re a family,” Karina reminded them all. “We’ll work together and with the Lord’s help we’ll get through. The next storm might not be as intense as the first one, Baa.”

“And we’re already throwing breakers and pulling plugs every time we shut down, Mom Baa,” David reminded her. “Maybe the first storm was a warning, the Lord’s way of telling us that we needed to start taking care of ourselves more.”

“Yeah,” John agreed, moving to rest one hand on Karina’s shoulder. “Plus, the less tech we use, the better off we are if those damned Gormies come snooping around. Because we all know just how fast the Planetary Union’s defense troops will come out.”

Basil started feeling herself turning green. Not the Gormonigons, holy lord, Lord of Hosts, please, please, pleasepleaseplease, she begged, imagining what could happen. Not again, Lord, I beg.

“Enough Baa,” Kos growled. “Calm down. Sufficient unto the day is the evil therein,” he quoted. “The floor cleaners and laundry machines will run tomorrow, and the next day. But perhaps not forever. We’ll start learning how to work around them now, so it will no be an emergency the next time we have to shut everything down. And we will start gathering the thin-husked nuts that the children found and add them to our stores.”

 

The news from the south confirmed Kos’s wisdom and Baa’s fears. They’d gotten less warning, and although the storm had been weaker than the midsummer event, people still lost equipment. Several air transports crash-landed when the storm shorted out their computer-controlled power systems, scattering cargo and delaying shipments from the spaceport depots, or so reports claimed and gossip confirmed. The best estimate, according to the news bulletins, was that a third of the big machines had been rendered unusable, either entirely or in part, and half the domestic tech. Carl shuddered with mock-horror as he read a message from one of the dairy operations down there. “Milking four hundred cows by hand! And every cow wants to be first!”

Bethany, Karina’s oldest daughter, crossed two fingers in a warding-off sign. “Worse than that, Carl, how about churning four hundred cows’ worth of milk by hand twice a day! Or making cheese and working separators for all that milk! That’s what should scare you out of your shoes.”

“Speaking of shoes,” Tildie interrupted. “How are yours?” They all looked down at their feet. Basil’s house slippers, made of tough boiled and felted shahma wool, had lots of service left in them. Bethany’s boots needed some attention, however. Carl’s shoes appeared fine. “We need to start stocking up on children’s shoes,” Tildie decided. “And work shoes. No more fancy little flats or sandals.” Carl looked smug until Tildie shook her finger, “Or tooled leather boots with flowers on the heels, young man. I saw those.” Basil made a note to look at Miriam’s shoes, and Tim’s as well.

Over the next week the women of the Peilov household drew up an inventory. They started in the cellars and worked their way up to the drying loft and attics, tallying everything they had, all the spares, and what they might need. “How did we end up with four rolls of synth-tarp?” Basil asked as she wrestled the fourth one back into the pile at the far end of the last attic.

Tildie sneezed, then waved her hands in a “don’t look at me” gesture. “I want to know what it’s doing up here. This is supposed to be house storage, not farm.” They logged their finds and returned to the lower level. “And who needed the extra-extra-extra large winter coat? I’ve seen smaller field shelters.”

Basil giggled. She’d tried the coat on and had vanished inside it. “But the material is lovely thick and soft. We could take it apart and see if Mrs. Krehbiel could make two smaller coats out of it.”

“True.” Tildie tapped the stylus against her teeth. “No, I think we keep it. Someone who needs one of those will trade or pay very, very well for that. And who knows, one of the boys might turn out that big.”

Oh I hope not. David, John, and Carl, and now Michael eat so much as it is, a boy that size would devour a cow at every meal. Basil thought for a moment, flipping through the pages of inventory. “Tildie, when is Kos bringing the flocks back?”

“Hmm? After the next Sabbath. He wanted to get all the tubers and roots harvested, so we don’t have to worry about the sheep eating the tops and us not being able to find the roots.”

“Thank you.” Basil liked the sheep and shahma, the sheep-llama chimera. She’d never seen live animals, let alone come close to one, until she’d come to ColPlat XI and Kos brought her to his farms. The sheep had terrified her the first time she saw them, and her face burned a little as she remembered how Kos and Karina had laughed themselves sick as she cowered in the corner of the sheep pen, trying to escape the curious noses sniffing her pockets for treats. It had taken a week before she spoke to either her spouse or his first wife. Now nothing except the two bulls bothered her, although she had a wary respect for the neighbor’s mules. She’d seen them kick down a gate to get through. I like the shahma. They’re quiet, and combing them is so relaxing. And most of the time they are not as stupid as the sheep can be.

The morning after the next Sabbath, Kos called everyone together again. All twenty-eight members of the extended family squeezed into the big dining room in the main house. After prayer, Kos explained, “I’m taking David, Baa, Saul, Itzak, and Micah to get the flocks tomorrow.” Itzak, married and living with his wife Gomer on a smaller farm, nodded. “And we are all taking rifles and bows with us. There’s snow forecast, and the dardogs are moving. There’s also been trouble with some boar and pseudo-boar, and I don’t want to take chances with someone getting hurt.”

“Who will drive the transports?” Saul, Kos’s youngest brother, asked.

“You and David. Only the smallest animals or those that look weak will ride. We’re driving the rest down on the hoof. Matthew Plumber wants a fire line grazed along the power and water right-of-way, and will pay thirty credits a day for each shepherd, plus ten for the sheep. And he’s supplying food.” The younger men exchanged high fives.

Basil smiled as well, since she would not have to be trying to supervise the boys cooking. Kos insisted that his sons learn their way around a kitchen, and his daughters knew how to cook in a camp, but that didn’t mean the boys’ efforts always rose to Basil and Karina’s standards. It didn’t help that pregnancy made Basil’s stomach less tolerant of scorch and char.  There’s more to food than meat-on-a-stick and dough-on-a-rock. But I’ll need to see about those work boots, and getting a good stout hiking staff or shepherd’s crook. I wonder if I can borrow Michael’s rucksack? It should fit me. Basil started making her mental list and tuned out the rest of her husband’s words.

(C) 2014, 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin. All Rights Reserved.

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