©2020 C. Henry Martens
Loading crawdads was always interesting. The little bug-like crustaceans liked to wiggle out of your grip, and as you scramble to avoid dropping them, they use their claws to find the most sensitive spot possible to grip in their vise-like claws. It doesn’t help that it is still dark.
Li’l Angie is an expert. She rarely drops one, always careful to grip them behind the front claws on the sides of the thorax. Of course, she has a lot of experience. Crayfish are her thing.
The old ice chest is filling fast. There is no ice, so the crustaceans are bedded in stacking trays I designed and built from a roll of wire mesh. They will survive the trip to market in a bottom layer of wet water moss, covered in dampened dandelion leaves.
“This batch looks good,” LA opines, “They’re gonna sell better if they’re alive.”
I look at the latest tray-full and watch them squirm as she’s laying wet leaves on them. I’m amazed how fast they make their way to the edges and start to climb on top of each other. They are looking for an escape.
“Yeah, Angie… they look good. How many more do we have?”
“Two more cages. But this cooler’s almost full. One more cage, probably, and we’re done.”
When LA set her traps in the river and caught a few, she discovered a business. She would transfer the mini-lobsters into holding pens to keep them. The small ones would feed the big ones. Crayfish are cannibals. As long as the water flowed and they had something to eat, some would thrive. There was a ready market in town.
We are a small group of survivors. Most people living outside of the city live alone or in small groups. Our company is pretty average. We have two oldsters, myself and a woman with practical knowledge of gardening and food preservation. She can double as a midwife in a pinch.
The newest addition to the group is a thirtyish man that lived with another group. They all disappeared while he was out hunting alone. He had a woman that was pregnant, and the sudden loss has been hard on him. The not knowing.
Li’l Angie is our youngest. I figure she is about eight. When we found her a couple of years ago, she had been surviving on her own in the old local landfill. She was an expert at catching rats and cooking them. Her surviving parent had disappeared weeks earlier from what we could gather.
I managed to protect a kid I found as the world fell apart. I found her in a basement, unconscious from dehydration. Niki is fourteen. I make her dress as a boy. Not that it will protect her from some.
Towning is dangerous, but necessary. We travel in as a group and stay together. The market gives us a chance to get things we either can’t make ourselves or stuff that we can’t find scavenging. The townies run a slave trade to find labor. It is best to travel in a group and to have skills suited to supplying town with what they need.
Bringing up the ox cart, Drew gently nudges the Corriente steer in the side with his staff. He’s a strong man but surprisingly gentle with animals. His mutt sticks to his side like glue.
The cart is already packed toward the front. Vegetables and herbs from Oolani’s garden. Rawhide rope from my own hand thrown on top. An open crate with smoked ground squirrels on a stick, Niki’s contribution. Drew makes simple looms and has one dismembered and tied into a bundle to one side. He will be tying a couple of sheep to the back of the cart after we have LA’s crawdads loaded, and he’ll try to sell the sheep with the loom as a package deal.
Grunting as he lifts the heavy ice box, Drew exclaims, “Gawd, LA… you musta bin feedin’ these things good. I think they’re heavier than usual.”
Angie likes Drew. They have formed a quick bond.
As Drew places the heavy box on the cart, the little girl instructs him, “Be sure the open bung faces to the rear so the water drains out. Otherwise the ones at the bottom might drown.”
The big man scowls hard at the admonishment, but as he turns, he winks at me and grins. Behind him, Li’l Angie grins too.
We enjoy the miles. Oolani and I walk ahead, setting the pace. Niki and LA walk together, chattering. Drew walks behind, mostly silent but occasionally interjecting a joke based on what the girls are giggling about. The steer doesn’t appreciate the humor and shakes his horns at the effort to draw the heavy load.
The city used to have a population of thirty-five hundred or so. It is hard to imagine for the youngest and difficult to remember for the older.
“Hoy!” the gatekeeper exclaims as we approach. We’ve seen him before, so we understand the unusual greeting. The poor guy was here on vacation when the shit hit the fan, and England is a long ways away.
“Jonathan, good to see you.”
We clasp hands. He is an enthusiastic shaker with a deadly grip.
“Aye, the monthly marketing, Scanlon, eh? Anything I should see first? I’ve been lookin’ for some things to charm my new girlfriend.”
It’s always a good idea to keep a gatekeeper happy, and Jonny is easy to like anyway.
“I found something a while back that she might like.” Jonathan always has a new girlfriend, so I’m always thinking of our next meeting. I dig in my pocket and bring out several small packets.
“Kool-aid? Oy, they would be great except sugar is so dear.”
“No, Jonny… this is dye. Something to make your girlfriend’s clothing bright. She’ll be the most colorful girl in town. Red, purple, orange…”
Jon is delighted, just as I knew he would be. There are six packets of dye, so I know he will have something to trade after giving his current flame a couple.
We make arrangements to meet later for a beer as the wagon passes through the gate. Jonathan will buy this time.
Drew comes up to take the steer’s head. Market day means town doubles in population. Best to control the animal in the crowd.
There must be three hundred people, maybe more. We recognize our neighbors in the valley to the west of us, the Parkers, as they wave from across an aisle. They must have traveled twice as far as we do. One of them is missing. I make a note to ask one of them about it.
“Hey Scanlon, that guy we’ve had trouble with has his stuff on our table.”
I look and see that Drew’s right. The guy always gets in early and tries to take up space.
The market rents spaces and as long as we are here before the shadows get too short, we have a place reserved.
I’ve been polite far too long. I walk up and throw the guy’s wares on the ground at his feet. He makes a move and I shoot him a look… and he hesitates. Perhaps the hand on my knife gives him pause. In any case, the moment is over, and he picks up his stuff with a scowl.
Drew and I unload the cart, handing the bundles and crates and coolers onto the table where Oolani takes over to arrange everything in an attractive effort to maximize our profits. Me? I’d just throw the stuff anywhere and have to root around to find something if someone thought they wanted something.
I engage Niki with my eyes and encourage her to be unobtrusive, keeping to the back of the booth and being silent. She understands but is a growing teenager and thinking about rebellion. I see it in her eyes.
Someone needs to take the cart and park it. It’s my turn, and Drew will hover around the booth to protect our interests. Besides, I have a date with a beer and Jonathan is buying.
There are a lot of carts. I make a mental note to talk to the rest of the group about getting started earlier. In doing so I remember how the same kind of discussion led nowhere with my wife in the former world. Time meant little to her when she had to put on make-up. Those were the days, and I have a momentary sense of melancholy.
The tavern is an open sided tent with a make-shift bar made from rough-cut boards set on several barrels. There are no seats, so people either lean on the bar, lean against a tent pole, or wander.
Jonny hails me from one end of the bar and by the time I’m there he has a mug of warm, frothy beer already poured.
He waits for me to drain my mug halfway…
“So Scanlon, how do things fare in the outback of a warthog’s arse?”
Jonny’s always giving me crap for living outside the city. He doesn’t see any advantages in a place with no female options, preferring a target rich environment.
“Things are good, Jon. We’ve been putting stuff away for winter and we built a new room into the hill. The new guy is working out, and he’s brought some real expertise in how we handle our animals.”
Jonathan gave me a wise look, like he knew something.
“And your young protégé, Nicolas? How is the young master developing?”
The big man winked.
I was suddenly wary, and Jonathan could see it.
“Oh, come now, Scanlon, old boy. You didn’t think dressing the lass like a boy would keep her hidden from an old wag like me, didja’?” He paused but went on. “It won’t be long before you won’t be able to hide it. She’ll be some prime real estate soon enow and worth a lot to some people that you don’t want to have on your bad side.”
I knew that the Englishman had loyalties that might conflict with mine, but he seemed inclined to be on my side in this one. I appreciated that, but I was nervous about the people surrounding us.
Sensing my reluctance and the reason, my mug was filled with the remaining beer and Jon motioned me to follow him.
We ended up among the animals still hitched to their carts. The aroma rose around us and as long as we kept our voices low, we would have privacy.
We half-sat together on the end of my cart.
I had to inquire, “So Jonny… who else knows Nicolas is a girl? Should I be worried?”
He got a hard look on his usually jovial face and said, “You can never tell, my friend. You know I like the womenfolk, so maybe I have better radar than some. But there have to be others that’ve noticed the signs and just haven’t had the epiphany yet. Or they have and they’ve remained silent. Those would be the dangerous ones.”
“Anyone in particular? I asked.
“Not really. But I saw you throw the goods out of your booth, and so did plenty of other people. You can’t have people walk all over you, but making enemies isn’t wise either.”
There was a long silence.
We talked about the latest townie news. The deaths, the births, the disappearances. Jonny dropped a couple of names of people I knew that were now in servitude. One had escaped and hadn’t been seen since. The time passed, and the beer had time to clear my head. It was time for me to swap duties with Drew so that he could do some trading.
Jonathan and I parted with me thanking him, and him assuring me that he would keep my secret close to his chest.
Drew was glad to see me and took off as soon as I got to the booth. Li’l Angie was busy cleaning out her ice chests and had another that had seen better days but would be fine once one of the handles was worked on. The vegetables were thinned out substantially, and Oolani was engaged with another woman trying to dicker a puppy for the rest of the carrots. Not much of a swap, so I didn’t think it likely she would be successful. Niki was sitting on one of the coolers in the back, laying low as she had been instructed. The sheep were gone, so I knew Drew had sold them and the loom. I had to wonder what he had traded for because I didn’t see anything.
I wandered around in front of our booth trying to be out of the way but inspecting everything others were selling.
One of the booths was selling smoked ground squirrel on a stick. I was hungry and curious to compare it to ours, so I traded a nail clipper I’d scavenged that was still in the package. The meat was too dry, but the seasoning wasn’t bad and with time, the kid selling them would have a better product. We might have to up our game.
One of the booths was particularly wealthy. Pre-shit-hit-the-fan sleeping bags, dehydrated survival foods that looked like they were still good, and new metal wagons with real metal wheels that they’d found in a collapsed warehouse. Of course, they also had a lot of stuff that other people had traded to them for a wagon. I offered some okra and bean seed for six nylon feed sacks that were in good shape, and after some negotiating, they gave me four.
The booth that the Parkers had was almost empty as they were already packing up to go home. I dropped in and made conversation, finding out that one of their kids had fallen from a ledge and died. It was quick, so they were glad of that. At least it wasn’t a disappearance like so many lately.
If they left soon and made decent time, they would get back soon after dark.
I was starting to think about getting back myself and made my way back to see how we were doing on sales. The booth was mostly empty, the crates and chests packed with traded goods, and I suggested to Oolani that if we could get rid of the last stuff, or just pack it up, we could catch up to our neighbors and be safer on the way home.
I worked my way back to our cart and brought it back.
The guy in the next booth grinned as Oolani shoved her leftovers toward him. She was making nice so his feathers weren’t as ruffled. I was hoping it would work, but skeptical. Oh well…
We loaded our cart with rough fabric, some dried fish, a couple of metal kitchen utensils, a hand-crafted bow and a quiver of arrows, and some large sacks of course flour and crushed corn.
There were a few people and carts trailing out of the gate as we made our way out of town. Jonathan wasn’t on duty, but he was sitting under a big fabric sunshade, watching.
I ambled over.
“Any idea how far ahead the Parkers are?” I asked.
“Yeah, too far for you to catch up. They were flogging their ox pretty hard once they got clear of the gate, so I think they’re tryin’ ta get home.”
I watched as Drew goaded our own steer.
“Well, Jonny, say hi to your new girlfriend, and if you get out west, drop in and see us. Just be sure we see you coming.”
“Aye, friend… I would enjoy a visit. Maybe next month.”
That was Jon’s typical response, and I shook his hand as I departed.
Catching up, I fell in behind. Drew plodded ahead with his dog by his side.
A couple of miles went by and I noticed Li’l Angie was nowhere to be seen. She was an energetic little thing, and she liked to skirt the trails as we moved along, moving just out of sight. I’d asked her to stay closer, but she would sneak off every time I got distracted. I was too old to chase her down.
The day was warm and the air so calm that nothing moved. We were making good time and the heat was making me sleepy. The smoked squirrel sat heavy in my stomach, and I wished I had gone for something sweet.
We rounded a blind curve, and the dog suddenly perked up. His ears went forward, and his lip curled in a low growl. Drew froze.
It was so quiet. Moments passed…
A rock rolled downhill on the high side of the road, and the dog and Drew both looked where it came from.
“That’s right! Everyone stay where you are! Nobody move!”
A dark figure rose from the sagebrush close to the ridge top. He had a long gun, and from the way he carried himself, I judged he knew how to use it.
Rifles were scarce anymore. Good ammunition even more scarce. But there are people around that can make their own or have stored munitions. The hoarders had mostly killed each other off, but the ones that were left were the most lethal of them. Survival weeds out the weak ones.
I had to ask, “What do you want?”
The dog moved forward about ten feet in a rush. Drew made a sound, a quick and harsh, “Stchhhhh…” like air escaping from an overinflated tire with a sudden puncture. The dog stopped.
The rifle swung toward the dog, moving only slightly.
The dog growled.
“Calm your dog or it’s dead.”
Drew snapped his fingers and the dog dropped to the ground. He looked back quickly, but then focused back toward the stranger.
The man with the gun spoke. “I need the young girl.”
I was busy thinking of ways to get to the guy. It appeared he was alone, but I could be wrong. In any case, I wasn’t inclined to give him anyone.
Looking around like I was trying to find the girl he was speaking of I said, “Well, buddy… You’re a little late. The young one went on ahead. She’s halfway home by now.”
“Don’t try to make me think you’re stupid, or that I’m stupid. I’m talking about the girl dressed like a boy.”
I glanced at Niki. She had made herself as small as she could on the opposite side of the cart. I could tell the guy could see her though.
I couldn’t see any way to make this come out well. I’d gotten lazy.
Suddenly Drew gave a short, insistent whistle. The dog bolted forward. I dove for the cart as Oolani ducked behind the steer. I had an old pistol in a box bolted underneath the cart, no idea if the rounds in it were still good, and I hadn’t cleaned it like I should have over the years. I fumbled for it.
An explosion rumbled between the hills, the rifle speaking loudly.
Niki was looking and she said, “Damn, he didn’t miss.”
I heard the bolt wracking and expected another round to explode, killing Drew.
Then I heard stones rattling.
Drew shouted, “He’s down!”
I wasn’t sure how that could be, but I came up with the old revolver pointed in the general vicinity of the shooter.
Li’l Angie stood there. A bloody knife rising from her clenched fist. A look in her eye that I will not soon forget.
The man with the rifle lay sprawled head down, halfway down the rise, the rifle slightly uphill.
Drew’s dog lay dead, crumpled at the base of the hill.
We searched, loaded the rifle and the backpack on the cart. The guy’s boots, a nice blade, and some matches in a waterproof container followed. Finally, we loaded the dog. He would make a couple of meals.
Drew was downcast. He tried not to show it, but he took losing an animal hard. I’d seen it before.
Li’l Angie climbed up onto the cart and lifted the lid on one of her ice chests. I hadn’t noticed that the lid was cracked open with a blanket.
Our eight-year-old savior lifted a puppy out of the cooler and held it out to Drew. He took it silently and turned, walking toward home.