I stopped to take a drink from the canteen that Jax had given me that morning before I started putting the corn in the ground. He had planned drill the seeds himself but was frankly so exhausted I wasn’t sure he could drive a straight row. It had been a long, hard winter for everyone and when I say everyone I mean everyone. Our group, the Houchins farm, the town, the country, the world. Everyone was a mess but not necessarily all for the same reasons.
I had planned to get the corn in the ground the first week of April; however, because it took longer for the snow to melt, and there being more of it than norm, once it did melt it left a muddy mess behind. Creeks, streams, and all other bodies of water were well over their normal high water mark for the time of year. By rights the field was still damper than I would have normally put the seed into but frankly there wasn’t a lot of choice. Just as the wheat had started to look like a bumper crop the wet weather had wreaked havoc and we were looking at a loss of at least 30% of the crop before we could even start to harvest. It was a devastating blow to our overall plans and a disaster I had no way of mitigating. The wet ground had also delayed planting the early crops of greens in the garden as well.
The weather and having to be out in it had also weakened everyone’s immune system. What started out as a cold had put Kelly to bed for almost two weeks freaking Jax out completely. Everyone was down off and on with something. Johnson had to have an infected molar pulled and that was neither fun nor easy. Aiden got a black eye during that scene and it is just now fading away completely. Any number of other things made more work than they otherwise would have from sickness to chores.
Ginger and I spent a lot of time gathering what early greens we could find in the surrounding woods but the cold, wet weather had delayed much of the wild forage too. We had to balance the time spent gathering with how much we brought in. A couple of hours to bring in one pot of greens that would feed everyone was not a doable, daily activity. We combed my mother’s recipe files and decided that we would use what greens we could for two primary purposes; to make a green broth to help keep everyone healthy – or at least healthier – and to piece out meals like omelets, quiches, and adding greens to the few grains that we decided we could eat in bulk. It was a good thing that I hadn’t culled any of the birds because we needed every one of the fewer and fewer eggs we collected to try and keep protein in our diet. We hunted when we could but that took away from other things that needed to be done. It wasn’t a perfect solution but it was better than doing nothing at all.
On the other hand even if the weather and ground hadn’t felt like it was conspiring against us life would have been challenging. Ashley went into labor almost a month early and had a difficult labor and delivery. It was a month before any of us felt we could breathe easy. At planting time Ashley was still recuperating. I don’t even want to think what would have happened if one of the nanny goats hadn’t birthed out of season from the others because at first Ashley was simply too weak to nurse and even once she began to heal her milk barely came in. What milk there was didn’t satisfy the baby and as a result he wasn’t thriving at all. Even once we figured out how to provide him a type of “formula” using the goat’s milk – thanks mostly to Mrs. Houchins – the baby remained small. When I took my turn watching him to make sure he didn’t start to have trouble breathing which he had done for about a week after his birth he reminded me more of a spud in the potato draw than a newborn.
I don’t mean that the way it will likely be taken by many in this day and age of high tech interference with mother nature but back then that is exactly the way that little baby looked … at least until he put on a few pounds and developed a personality. Before that I wasn’t the only one that wondered if the boy did survive if he was going to have serious issues but none of us said it aloud. There were many nights when I took my turn monitoring him – as a form of respite for Aston who was torn between Ashely and his son to the point of putting his own health at risk – that I wondered how we were going to meet the baby’s needs and it brought back nightmares of Will’s illness. I kept my opinions and thoughts to myself and to this day I am glad that I did, very glad. Because I was wrong. At about a month old the baby not only developed a personality but he developed a set of lungs on him. And his crying triggered Ashley’s milk supply to increase, which increased her need to nurse more frequently which in turn also seemed to help her to heal internally and stop the bleeding she experienced if she did much more than get up and try to tend to her personal needs and those of the baby. It was a blessing not of us took for granted.
But all of that just added to our problems of too little manpower for the projects we had planned. All of that criticism the others had heaped on me over the early winter fell by the wayside as they came to understand and to see that time was a resource just like any other and that you had to spend it wisely to get the most return for your input. Ideas of beehives and worm farms and all of the other bits of window dressing that would have been nice were left in folders labeled “nice to have” while all of the plans for what we needed were addressed the best we could; and even for what we needed there wasn’t enough time.
In addition planting there was recon, hunting, moving the boobies around the home place in danger of being flooded out, replacing the one that had been destroyed or made useless by the floods, building multiple outhouses when the house’s septic field became saturated by the flood, and target practice.
And when I say target practice I don’t mean that everyone was outside plinking cans to make their aim better. No, this target practice started up about the time that the flooding finally began to subside. Drones. Reggie and I had discussed and then presented our conclusions to our group and then a group led by Vern and Lon from the Houchins compound.
Starting the tractor back up I drove and went over the meeting concerning our latest problem. Reggie opened the discussion by asking, “Have you noticed an increase in air traffic around your place?”
Lon answered, “You could say that.”
Vern nodded, “They’re getting bolder.”
Reggie looked at me and I sighed. “Why am I the one that has to explain?”
“Because you know him best.”
Out of patience with the topic I snapped, “Will people stop saying that?! Maybe I used to but I certainly don’t anymore.”
Vern snapped right back, “Stop whining. Start explaining.”
I rolled my eyes and said, “I’m not whining. I just get tired of it all. We’re all tired of it all.”
Reggie interrupted and said, “Cut her some slack. Gennie is really riding her. Thinks if we just take out Matt that life will return to what it used to be. She won’t shut up about it no matter how many times it gets explained to her. And she winds up blaming Lydie every time.”
“Gennie the young one?”
Rolling my neck to get rid of some of the tension I said, “Yeah. Kid is damaged. I’m trying to … to … to do whatever you are supposed to do for people when they’ve had it bad and just aren’t in a place to understand but my patience is wearing thin. If it isn’t her opinion it is her attitude and if it isn’t those two it is her … “
“Intentionally disobeying,” Reggie finished for me. “Just table it for now Lydie and stay on track. We need to get back.”
I nodded and tried. “I don’t think this is just about me anymore. You’ve heard how everyone everywhere is running into shortages.”
“They were doing that before.”
Nodding I said, “Yeah, but fatalities and attrition from the war, infrastructure failure, and acts of terrorism knocked the population back and made room for salvaging operations to, if not make up the difference at least give people the illusion that there was more cushion in the pipeline than there was. But the bones have pretty well been picked clean. I’m guessing they are bleached dry and white they are so picked over.”
Lon nodded in agreement. “Yeah. We figured as much was going to happen. That’s why we’ve been getting crops in the ground and everything else Dad has scheduled. We don’t plan on suffering the same consequences for them rose-colored glasses.”
I responded, “Goody. So are we. But there are huge populations of people that believe it or not are still waiting for other people to go get what they need and bring it to them. Most of them expect the government to get it for them. More and more don’t seem to care who gets it for them, they just want someone to do it for them. Only there are very few places for people to get anything from. And those that have something are guarding it against those that would desire to take it from them.”
Proving how much of a grouch he could be … or maybe how tired he was … Vern grumbled, “We know all of this, get to the point.”
I observed that we weren’t the only ones running short of sleep and getting cranky. I grabbed my temper in both hands and tried to explain. “I’ve been saying all along that Matt might not be completely in charge. Even if he is, this whole battling the orcs to rescue the fair maiden is probably not his primary objective.”
“Not this again.”
“Yes. This again. Now let me finish. I’m not saying that Matt isn’t deep into some fantasy where I am concerned though I have my doubts. However, these drones serve a more serious purpose … or they likely do I mean. Geez,” I said trying not to grind my teeth in frustration. “If you didn’t know me or about me and if you didn’t know about Matt but all the other facts remained the same, what would these drones signify to you?”
Lon nodded. “They’re scouting for supplies as close to home as they can get. They know we have something they want … food and other supplies.”
“Women too,” Reggie said.
Vern growled but agreed. “Sure. Given their reputation I can agree with that.”
Continuing I said, “Our recons have seen burial pits. They are suffering the same kind of attrition as everyone else. It has softened the blow but hasn’t stopped it from happening. The people in town don’t look good, not even the top dogs that were left behind by Delorey. And speaking of … we haven’t heard anything from him in almost three weeks. Something is up. I don’t have any facts beyond this to support it but something is definitely up.”
“Delorey could be explained as he has a project going someplace else.”
“Yeah sure,” Reggie agreed. “And we aren’t saying it is definitely a dot on the map but after regular weekly contacts – sometimes even more often than that – with those in town to go three weeks with nothing just seems more than strange. The fact that it coincides with the uptick in drone activity makes it more suspicious.”
“They could have found a different way to communicate.”
“Could have,” I agreed. “Definitely a possibility. But what about the riot in that town that we were all positive belonged to Delorey? What about Chattanooga blowing up, another one we were sure was under the control of Delorey? And Nashville? That was definitely Delorey’s territory and there’s been noise of some knew guy running most of the city.”
Lon and Vern looked at each other and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah we’ve considered there’s a problem with Delorey’s people but that would mean the lack of communication could just be a result of him needing to spend time retaking territory, maybe dealing with a dust up.”
Reggie and I nodded. “Sure. Possible. Maybe even likely. But then who has the keys to town to start changing how things are being run?”
I added, “Like Reggie said, sure, the drones were there before the weather got too bad to run them but who is giving the orders to start back up and where are those orders coming from? In town? Out of town? Even if you don’t consider it a change it is still an escalation and Delorey isn’t the type to turn that kind of control over to anyone else.”
“He’s never had a territory this big to control.”
I scratched my head with both hands in frustration. “You’re right but there are too many questions that need answering. I don’t want to get surprised by another attack. The last one was bad enough.”
“Recon hasn’t shown them to have the manpower to try that again.”
“Maybe, assuming they don’t get outside help,” I reminded them. “But modern warfare isn’t just about frontal assaults. Shock and awe is only good for so much. If they can use the drones for their own recon they could also use them in modified attack plans that might weaken us just enough or … or there are lots of things they can do but will they? Or will they try something totally different? For all we know they might even be prepared to trade. A fight would mean that they could actually destroy what they need. We have to figure out which way they are most likely to jump.”
The meeting hadn’t concluded with any concrete decisions except to step up recon and start looking for specific things that would prove that there was a new Big Bad in town. I was heading back to the barn after a long day when I saw Jax running towards me. In alarm I downshifted but he jumped onto the steps and told me to keep going to the barn.
“Is … is it Ash? Or …?”
Jax shook his head grimly. “You and Reggie had it right. A report coming out of Chattanooga let slip that Delorey annoyed the wrong someone and the military excised him.”
I let that sink in as I pulled into the barn and shut the tractor down. Then I asked, “What do they mean by excised?”
“Sounds like it was a targeted attack. He, the group with him, and a corrupt militia group was captured, tried, and executed less than a month ago. They didn’t give an exact date but it is close enough to the change in tactics from town that we can figure there is a new big dog running the show.”
“Do the Houchins know?”
“They do now.”
“I suppose the question everyone expects me to answer now is whether Matt is going to play King Maker again … or if he is going to usurp the crown outright.”