Saturday Story: Fountains of Mercy: Part Eleven

Trouble comes to the Peilov lands . . .

The men returned the morning after the next Sabbath. Kos hurried his brother, cousin, sons, and helpers, almost running the animals into the pens. “Basil, see to the animals,” he ordered. “Michael, Bethany, help her. Karina, get the children inside and out of sight. Tildie, bring every spare rifle and energy pack we have, and give one to Basil. We were followed and I don’t think they are missionaries.”

Basil froze, then recalled the incident in the meadow. No. Not my animals and family you don’t, she growled at the unseen strangers. “Bethany, get the horses and milk cows into the barn, lock the door, and stay in there. Michael, come with me.” The bull could take care of himself, and probably would. Even Basil gave him plenty of room. The oxen and beef steers would be out of sight out in the old fields, grazing the stubble. The chickens were on their own.

“I want to go with the men,” Michael protested.

“I need a man with me, and you are him,” she told him. “We’re going to put the sheep in with the shahmas.” If they were all in one pen, she could defend them more easily. And the shahma would fight if scared, unlike the sheep.

Tildie came past and handed her a rifle and two energy packs, then trotted off to the men waiting by the gate closest to the road. Please, Lord, may I not have to use this, please, Basil prayed as she got behind a solid pen panel, out of sight. “Michael, here’s what we’re going to do if we need to. If I raise my hand, then drop it, like so, I want you to . . .”

She saw motion on the road, and a group of people coming toward the gate. They looked ragged, and two or three were pulling or pushing small carts or wagons of some kind. The men in front stopped the others and they talked, or so Basil guessed, and the others scattered out, leaving five. Everyone carried a staff or rifle of some kind, and Basil went cold. The biggest man walked up to the gate and pushed on it.

“Mom Baa, what’s happening,” Michael whined from beside her. “I can’t s—“

She clamped her hand over his mouth. “Shut up,” she hissed. “Stay low, move slowly, and get ready to open the gate if I signal.”

The boys’ eyes went wide. She lifted her hand off his mouth and shoved him in the direction of the gate, then crouched by a gap in the pen’s side, watching, rifle ready but the safety still on.

Across the broad, empty farmyard, she watched as Kos shook his head, pointing down the road. The big stranger looked back and forth, and the men with him spread out, until all five faced the gate, blocking the lane from the road. Kos gestured again, pointing down the road. He must be telling them to go on. Wait, if those five are there, where did the others go? They couldn’t get into the barn or the equipment shed, those were locked, as was the storage building and grain house. If they ducked through the fence and are coming around behind . . . shitshitshit. She got to her feet and moved as fast as she could around the inside of the pen without disturbing the sheep and shahma, until she could see the open, orchard-side of the farmyard.

There, in the orchard, Basil spotted motion. People walking toward her, their eyes down as they looked for fruit and found none. They had hard faces and lean, and Basil shivered. They reminded her of the men who tried to drive the sheep off the cliff. As they came closer she counted five more men and three women. “Damn it,” she heard one of the men call. “The greedy bastards stripped everything.”

“We’ll make them give us what we need, since they won’t share,” one of the women called back. Her voice, high and thin, grated on Basil’s nerves. “One family doesn’t need much, even if they are misers.”

Basil heard something on the other side of the farmyard, and Kos, David, and Itzak yelling. She stood just enough to call out, “Stop where you are.”

Instead two of the men came closer. “I said stop,” she repeated.

“Come on,” the first man yelled. “It’s just a woman and some fluff-balls.” He drew what looked like a knife. One of the women raised her stick like a club and they rushed toward the pen.

Basil sighted and fired, dropping the first man. “I said stop,” she cried, sighting on the next target. The intruders began running away, all but two, the woman with the club and a dead-faced man with stringy hair. “Stop!” They came at her.

Basil fired twice. The woman fell but the man jerked, Basil flinched, and she only wounded him. He screamed and began crawling, dragging his leg as if it could not bear weight. David and Itzak ran past the side of the pen, chasing the intruders. David stopped beside the wounded man and Basil turned away so she wouldn’t see anything. “What’s he doing, Mom Baa,” Michael whispered.

“Don’t look,” she ordered. “We need to check on your father and then let Bethany know if she can come out of the barn.” Not yet, Michael. You shouldn’t have to see that yet.

“But I’m a man,” he protested, squirming out of her grip and half-climbing the side of the pen. “You said I’m a man, and I want to see what the other men are doing!”

“Let him look, Susannah,” Kos ordered, walking up to her, rifle in his hands. “May the Lord have mercy on us all, but I think he’s going to have to learn sooner than later.”

Basil bit her tongue. Now wasn’t the time or the place to argue. “Yes, Kos. Is it safe for Bethany to come out of the barn?”

“Not yet. You stay here, in case any of them get past us. We’re going to chase them back to the road and on their way, if we can.”

Basil sent Michael to watch the gate while she kept an eye on the back of the farmyard, by the orchard.  After a quarter-hour or so Micah returned. “You can let Bethany out,” he told her. “They’ve gone on, and they won’t be bothering anyone in this area.” He hawked and spat. “Oh, and don’t worry about the Krehbiels. We warned them as we came past, and they are farther from the road.” The Krehbiels had also left their woodlot untrimmed between their farm and the road, and now Basil thought she understood why.

She told Bethany to come out, sat down on a bench by the equipment shed, and shook, her hands over her face, crying silently. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to kill you. Why didn’t your stop? You could have stopped. I asked you to stop.

That night, after the bodies had been taken care of, Kos slumped in his chair at the supper table. “Tomorrow. We’re going to meet tomorrow, all of us, Itzak and Gomer, Saul, everyone. And the Krehbiels if they want to come.”

Basil and Tildie cooked and minded the children while Karina got things ready for their guests. Mr. Paul Krehbiel, a big, quiet man, arrived and sat carefully on the bench by the dining table, as if afraid of breaking the furniture. “Thank you, Mrs. Peilov,” he said when Karina presented him with hot choko-coffee. “I am most grateful for your hospitality this day.”

Saul and Itzak arrived, bringing Gomer. She looked so pregnant that Basil wondered how she could walk, and Tildie and Karina took her in charge, helping her into the biggest chair and finding some cushions so she could lean back without overbalancing.

As the women set out food and more drinks and fussed over Gomer, Kos asked Paul, “How are things?”

Paul’s morose expression reminded Basil of a round-faced shahma. “Better than some but not too good. Not only are we short of equipment, but I learned this morning that we’re back almost on the bottom of the district’s medicine distribution list. Agatha needs her diabetes pills, and we only have three months supply left. I managed to trade for an extra month just before the last sky fires, but the fabricators are down and the cities have priority.” He sighed. “And of course we have only what the wind charger will power. But the big draft horse colt is doing well, and that rooster I borrowed from you seems to be putting new life in some of the hens.”

Kos made a little finger-wag at his wives, as if warning them not to get any ideas. Basil bit her tongue and she noticed Karina carefully looking away from the men, trying not to laugh. Tildie shook her finger right back at Kos. Paul Krehbiel missed the by-play, busy with a piece of seedcake. Oh my, and he didn’t even think, did he? Basil concentrated on spinning, keeping her hands busy and her mind out of the barnyard.

Kos nodded. “How is harvest coming?”

“The Lord was good, Kosciusko, we were able to finish the small grains before the sky-fires. The apples and pears are coming along, and we had a swarm yesterday so there’s a new beehive should you need to borrow one in the spring.”

Basil filed the information away in her memory. They needed the bees for the fruit and some vegetables, as well as the alfalfa hybrid fodder grass in the meadow. The men talked crops for a few minutes before Kos broached the reason he’d asked Mr. Krehbiel and the others to come.

“I am very, very concerned about what happened over the past year and a quarter. The solar flares and magnetic storms caused real problems, problems Colonial Plantation Limited can’t seem to cope with. And we, all of us in the outlying districts, are the least of their concern, for the moment. But once word spreads that the farmers have food, shelter, and supplies, I worry what the response will be.”

Krehbiel nodded slowly. “I fear as well. Always in the past, when times grew hard, my people, the Mennonites, suffered because the government wanted our crops and land, or our bodies for military service and conscripted labor. You know that we are pacifists, for the Lord commands that we turn the other cheek and seek the ways of peace.”

Kos nodded in turn. “I know. I don’t understand, not entirely, but I know very well what happens when trouble hits and the government or the mobs start looking for scapegoats.” Basil shivered. She hadn’t known anything about the history of Jewish people before Kos met her, and now she knew more than she’d ever imagined. Pogroms and false-stories, accusations about the Jews taking over the space program so they could do something vaguely evil. Not that the monsters ever could decide what it was we Jews supposedly planned to do, precisely, once we took over the universe. Eat any alien that might be kosher? She snorted behind her hand. It had taken the rabbinical council three generations to decide that yes, shahma were legal to eat; how long to decide if an alien were edible? Pseudo-boars were also, in theory, kashrut, not that anyone ate them since they looked too much like pigs.

“I do not believe that we are going to be left alone much longer, either by the Company or by people who want what we have. Yesterday a group tried to rob the farm, and we drove them off using force.” Kos said, skipping over just how much force.

“Ah. Someone stripped the branches hanging over the road, and inside the fences as far as they could reach, but they didn’t come to the farm.” Krehbiel sounded relieved. “If they had, I’m not certain what we’d have done. It depends on what they offered and asked.”

“If they’d offered to work for a meal, then we’d have helped them. They demanded food and clothing, and attacked David, Carl, and I when we refused unless they earned their bread.”

Basil felt queasy again, then cold as she thought about the man dragging his leg, the woman falling to the ground dead. They called us greedy, and grasping, and misers for not giving them what they demanded. If they’d offered an exchange besides “not hurting you” or had asked for a single meal so they could be on their way, we’d have helped them. We’ve done it before. But could they afford to now, if they could no longer get any supplies from outside the district?

“Agreed. The Lord calls us to help the widowed, orphans, and those who cannot help themselves, but not to support the able loafers.” Krehbiel looked at the men and women gathered in the big dining room. “What do you have in mind Kosciusko Peilov?”

Kos stood up, pulled a roll of print-outs from the bag beside his chair, and spread them on the table as Karina and Bethany darted to move the dishes and cups out of the way. “This is a map of the Peilov family farms, our rental ground, the restaurant and guest houses and so on. Here’s your farm, and here are the Kuypers,” he pointed to the northern edge of the map. “They’re trying to get their quinley in, otherwise they’d be here. The Donatello River is just off the edge here.” Basil’s mind boggled a little as she realized just how much land Kos and his brothers and cousins had claimed.

“I’ve been taking with the crew of one of the stone fabricators. We met them as we were driving the flocks back from the hills. Their machine is still functional and will be coming this way in a few days, on the way to the new city. I offered a trade: Build a wall and blocks here, around the restaurant and one of the guesthouses, up on Crown Point Hill. We can fill in the rest inside the walls as time permits.”

“But Kos,” Karina protested, “We’ll lose the window wall and no one will want to stay with us if we wall the hill off.”

“No one is staying with us next season anyway, Mom Karina,” Bethany said, her voice wobbling a little. “The last guest cancelled yesterday because of ‘difficulties’ of some kind.”

David and Saul both looked serious as they studied the larger map. David tapped the city on the bigger river. “Mom Karina, we can always take the wall down if the need passes, and advertise as a reenactment site, like that new city on the Donau Novi with the stone walls and ‘quaint’ fake ancient Earth buildings inside. The one without a name.”

“Still no name?” Krehbiel asked. “You’ve got to be joking.”

Saul grinned. “No, Mr. Krehbiel. The last three names got rejected, or so the regional newsfeed said. There’s a running joke that the Company is going to call it Heretown or something.”

Micah muttered, “That sounds like the Company.”

Nods and chuckles of agreement surrounded the table. “So, what I want to propose is this, Paul. Once the walls are up, and we build enough shelter inside the walls, you and your family and some stock can stay with us if need arises. You and your family won’t have to fight or do anything to hurt other people, but you will need to help care for the livestock and other things while you’re with us.”

Krehbiel looked from the plan to the Peilov family filling the room. “Why?” He sounded suspicious.

“Because we’ll have room and I don’t want something bad to happen to you and yours if we can help it,” Kos started. “And I don’t want someone using you or your family as hostages. And you are a friend, have been since our families settled this area.”

A tense silence settled on the room as the men looked at each other. “And I want his wife’s apple cake recipe, and if this is what it takes to get it, it’ll be cheap,” Tildie hissed under her breath. “And I won’t have to give her my seedcake recipe.”

A deep guffaw of laughter burst from the usually somber Paul Krehbiel.  “My good woman, I am not certain anyone save the good Lord himself could get that from her, and then she’d make Him sign an agreement of secrecy.” He stood and extended his hand to Kos. “I accept your offer, for my family. We can hide behind the woodlot only so long, should what I deeply pray does not come to pass, does.”

“May the Lord hear your prayers, all our prayers, and answer them,” Kos replied shaking firmly.

It was Bethany who asked the question, but only after Mr. Krehbiel left. “Da, what did you bargain for to get the walls?”

“We provide materials and some labor, of course, and feed the workmen while they are here.” He put one hand on his eldest daughter’s shoulder. “And two of the men expressed interest in staying, or coming back once they see what the situation is at the new city. I warned them they’d have to work and earn a place if they did that, because we won’t have room for people who can’t pull their load.”

Basil noticed Tildie giving their husband an odd, shadowed look out of the side of her eyes, as if she suspected something more, but she held her peace.

“One thing we are going to have to change around,” Kos said after squeezing Bethany’s shoulder and letting go. “If the boys and I are working with the builders, someone else will have to take care of the shahma and sheep, and milch cows.” He looked straight at Basil.

“Baa will be perfect! James is big enough to ride in a back sack, and Baa’s a veterinary tech, so she can doctor them if need be,” Tildie gushed. “And she can spin and do other things while the flocks are quiet.”

“Oh no,” Basil said, trying to look sincere and innocent, “I think Tildie would be far, far better at minding the flocks. She runs faster than I do, and is stronger. I can stay closer to the barn and any sick or pregnant animals, and work with Mrs. Krehbiel and the others on their weaving and sewing projects. And once James learns to walk, he’d just spook the sheep and worry the shahmas.”

Tildie’s growing look of horror made it very hard for Basil to keep a straight face. Especially as Kos smoothed his chest length winter beard and nodded slowly. “Those arguments have merit Baa.” Tildie looked torn between tears and terror before Kos relented and pulled her into a tight embrace. “No, my love, I will not inflict the sheep on you, unless they are ready for stewing or roasting. We’d find you up a tree and the sheep trying to climb it while the cows and shahma shouted encouragement to the sheep.”

Basil giggled at the mental picture. “I was just teasing, Tildie, I promise. And you are right about my being able to spin and comb the fleeces and other things while the animals rest at midday.” But I don’t want to think about what wet weather will be like, or lambing out in the mud in spring.

Tildie’s suspicions about the rest of Kos’s promise to the stone makers proved unfounded. At least, once Bethany saw Oscar DiNatalia, she took whatever agreements had been made out of her father’s hands. Basil and Karina smothered sighs of gratitude when Tildie finally told her daughter to talk about something besides Oscar and his dark eyes, and strong hands, and warm voice, and how hard he worked.

The young man did work very hard. His task was grading and doing the final hand sort of the raw materials for the great stone fabricator. The men decided to sacrifice a smaller hill nearby, and the enormous machine rolled over to the hillock in the morning, grinding the rock and pulling it into the enormous crushing and mixing chamber. Oscar watched the stones, testing any new layer or intrusion to make certain it would not damage the mixture or the machine. Once enough had been “ingested,” the behemoth crawled to the construction site and began making stone blocks, stacking them ten meters high and sealing them together. The other men marked out the route of the walls, leveled the necessary area, moved pipes and wiring, or supervised the machine and its output. Basil, out with the animals in the far pasture where the sound and commotion wouldn’t bother them as much, marveled every evening at the work done in the day.

In three weeks, just before the snow started, the men finished shaping the gate for the wall. And Oscar asked Kos for permission to formally court Bethany. Over the next two weeks, the machine produced more, smaller stone blocks to use to build inside the walls. Then the men left, driving the great machine to the new city. Oscar promised to remain in contact and assured Kos that he would return once he knew his family would approve of his new career. Bethany began working on gathering things to start her own household, and Basil began counting the days until lambing season. Just before the solstice, the men moved most of the family’s supplies into the walled enclosure, along with half of the Krehbiel family’s food and farm implements. “Stone doesn’t burn,” Paul had reminded everyone. “The Keuypers were, well, the Lord had His hand on them, to bring rain when He did.”

“Indeed, Mr. Krehbiel,” David agreed. “One barn fire is one too many.”

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

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