Consequences - Chapter 9
By Susan Callaway
Consequences and New Choices
It seems a law of the universe that if you keep doing the things you've been doing, you keep getting the same things you were getting. So, if you don't like what you are getting, you must change what you are doing. It's not always easy.
Betty tapped her fingers on the desk top, waiting for news from the community infirmary turned birthing room. Two women were in labor at the same time, giving the midwife and her able assistant an interesting challenge. Charlie and Jeff stood by their wives, gently coaching and giving such physical comfort as they could. They all knew it was just a matter of time, and they all hoped that time would come soon.
Cathy, having had two children before was calm and stoic. Maria with her first baby was a little more anxious and uncertain, but she looked to the woman she now considered her sister and smiled through her discomfort. She thought of how wonderful it would be for their two children to grow up together in this wonderful new and free world.
Everyone else at the ranch was aware of the drama being played out at the headquarters building. They were all encouraged by the birth of new babies and the influx of good people in the last year. As a result of the rescue of Charlie and his family, two of the farmer's from Luke's town in the former state of Nebraska, and three with various talents from South Dakota had come last fall, bringing their families.
Two grade school teachers had come in the spring and established a private school for those who didn't want to homeschool totally. There was also a thriving apprentice program for the pre-teens. Among the newcomers this year had been a professional builder/contractor, a civil engineer, a doctor and three nurses, a machinist and tool maker, three more actual farmers and four rancher/cowboy types. There were now forty six adults, thirty pre-teens, and dozens of smaller children - all living and working together, yet living as free individuals.
The main projects for all of them last fall had been the harvest of their crops and provision of meat for the winter- both wild and domesticated - along with the construction of new cabins as more families joined them. Quarters had been cramped for a while as they shared the available space, but the new dwellings had all been completed and furnished in time for the first snowfall. The building had continued all summer, and new fields had been prepared and planted along with much other increased production of food to keep pace with the population. But though the work was long and hard, many hands made the work effective and enjoyable for everyone.
Keeping an old tradition, they had come together for a true "thanksgiving" in late November, a celebration of not only a successful harvest and hunt, but also the marriage of Jeff and Maria. The couple had adopted Maria's orphaned niece Angel as their daughter.
The winter had been long and cold, but filled with work and community building as the new people became assimilated. New friendships, and more than a few new families had formed while they worked to turn the products of their summer labor into useful objects and nutritious food. The hides and skins were fashioned into footwear and other necessary items. Old, worn out clothing was braided into sturdy rugs by the older children, and the younger ones were sent here and there as messengers and couriers. The women canned and dried the fruits and vegetables, making many pickles and other fermented foods. After much discussion and even some sharp debate, it had been decided to attempt brewing beer as well.
Laughter and warmth prevailed, and even the small disagreements or frictions were soon put aside and friendships resumed. All but one, Bill Evans... The young man had decided he would win a certain lady, but when she chose another man he became aggressive and uncooperative. In open council of the whole community, he refused to apologize or promise to mend his ways, and so was asked to leave the ranch. He took the food he was entitled to as wages for his work, and drove off in his old pickup truck.
There had been no more raids by bandits since the rescue party returned, though the security of the valley had not been relaxed, but they continued to hear of problems in the rest of the country from the dwindling number of ham radio reports they received each evening. Not that there were fewer stations, necessarily, but it was getting harder and harder for most to power their units more than a few minutes a day and some had given up trying. Even Luke wasn't broadcasting much these days as they all had their hands full just staying alive.
The summer just passed had been much dryer than normal, and their one well had proved inadequate for the increasing number of people and livestock, let alone their precious crops, so the engineer and the two old cowboys - however unlikely a team - had found a good spring in the next valley. They were all reluctant to move the cattle and horses because there was no way to make them really secure, but it had finally been done to keep from losing the valuable animals.
It had been a very good move. While drilling to enlarge the spring, they had hit an artesian pool and much of the valley quickly became a small lake after two more taps had been sunk. The poor clay soil had instantly gone from being a curse to a blessing because it held most of the water in the valley.
A trip was made to another lake and great pains were taken to capture live fish which were released into the new body of water. They were thriving, and would provide both another food source and recreation for the community once they were firmly established.
After building a small dike type dam where the two valleys connected, runoff from the lake had been diverted by pipes and, in some cases, ditches to provide irrigation for the farms, and the harvest to come in another month looked to be the most promising since the community had been established. The work was staggering at times, and they could have used a lot more help, but they all knew they had to maintain a balance between population and food production. Nobody had expected a free ride.
Now the problem was to find another valley for the livestock, since both the human and animal population was growing and the lake had risen so far that the cattle had nowhere to graze outside of the original ranch boundaries. Another small community to the north, beyond the lake, had ample highland pasture land, but few animals and fewer inhabitants, so it was hoped an agreement could be reached. Whether or not the stock could be held over the winter there was unknown, since guarding them from wolves and other predators would be more difficult so far away, but they had a hardy herd of Scottish Highlanders for beef, so it remained to be seen. The horses would be kept in the home pastures, at least for the present.
A sudden infant's cry, immediately followed by another, broke the waiting silence and Betty jumped to her feet. She knew she shouldn't bother them now, but her curiosity was almost overwhelming, so she stood just outside the door and waited as patiently as possible for someone to come out. She wrestled with her feelings of inadequacy because she had not been able to have any children, still not completely willing to accept that it was probably best now, considering her age. Babies born to mothers more than 30 years old had a higher risk of genetic defect and serious problems, and she knew she couldn't bear to watch her child die because she had been prideful and stubborn. Roger was resigned to their fate, and she knew she should be as well.
Mrs. Redwing, the older nurse, came out of the room with a bundle in her arms. She was smiling wide enough to split her face. "A big, healthy girl here for Cathy and Charlie," she said, then hurried down the hallway to the small room set aside for the doctor's office. A few moments later, Jenny, the midwife came out with another bundle and a similar smile. "A boy," she crowed! "Redhead, just like Jeff!" And she went down the hall too, gently closing the doctor's door behind her.
Betty poked her head into the birthing room, and smiled at the two proud fathers comforting their wives. The nurses and midwife assistant were almost done cleaning up the patients and the room, so she slipped in to offer congratulations and inquire about their wishes regarding announcement to the community.
Cathy wanted to get up, but Charlie and the midwife urged her to rest for the balance of the day at least. She gave in easily and everyone was relieved. Maria slept quietly, holding on to Jeff's hand solidly, even in her sleep. He gave Betty a look of such wonder and joy that she was moved to tears herself.
Charlie and Cathy had no objection to an immediate announcement of the birth of their daughter. They had decided to call her Hope Elaine, the second name being that of Cathy's mother. She had weighed in at 7 pounds, 3 ounces, and was 20 inches long. No telling about her eventual hair color, really, but she had a fine peach fuzz of something dark.
Jeff said he'd be delighted to have Betty announce the arrival of his son, and he didn't think Maria would object either. The names Carlos and William would bridge their histories, with one name from each of their fathers. Carl, as he would be known, was just two ounces heavier than Hope, and an inch longer, so he would be a tall man. The red hair had certainly been a surprise, and Jeff wished his own Irish father had been able to see the boy.
Betty had a notion that the concurrent birth was just the start of the things these two children would share.
The community room was crowded that evening, though most people now took their meals in their own cabins. News of the births had brought them together, and there was a growing pot luck supper in the dining room as people brought their meal to the HQ building to share along with the happy news. Only about half of them could fit in the dining room at once now, so those who would soon head out for guard duty were fed first, and workers from around the ranch began to come in, hands and faces washed and hair slicked back. The children were given sticks of jerky to chew on, and told to go play a while longer in the long twilight since they would eat after all of the working adults had finished.
Women bustled in the kitchen and carried steaming dishes to the dining hall, often apologizing for getting in each other's way. They knew that it was long past time for some changes - or some larger buildings!
Announcement of the double birth and other community news had just been completed when the general intruder alert alarm began to sound. Betty ran to the office to retrieve the small hand radio she'd stopped carrying last winter. Roger had been out to the far side of the lake, and she didn't know when he'd be back, but it was his voice on the radio when she turned it on. Each adult went to his or her assigned position and waited for whatever would come, and the children were brought into the common room to be watched by teens who were not quite ready for adult responsibilities.
Roger had been almost to the dam site when he'd spotted a puff of smoke coming from beyond the steep hillside to the west. Leaving his horse and climbing to the top of the ridge, he'd spotted at least one point that looked like a campfire in the distance. It was too far to see who and what was out there, but he had decided to sound the alarm and get more people guarding that place since there were, as yet, no booby traps in the arroyo below. The fast approaching night would make the area even more vulnerable.
Since there was very little fuel left for motorized vehicles now, a dozen men ran to saddle horses. Another dozen women went into the arsenal and storage rooms, bringing out rifles and ammunition, along with pre-packed saddle bags of supplies and trail food. The posse was mounted and on its way within a few minutes of the alarm.
The celebration had been great, but all too short, and everyone was concerned that their peace and security would be lost once again.
The Prodigal Returns
Roger heard the men ride up the draw and saw them crest the ridge beside the crude dam. He was grateful to see they were careful to be quiet, but wished he'd told Betty to have them dismount before they were sky lined on the ridge. Too late this time, but he'd remember it for another day... if there was another day. He still wasn't used to using horses for combat.
Their mounts were soon unsaddled and turned loose in the valley below them and the men were quietly briefed on the possible intruders. The last flags of the twilight colored the west with reds and golds, and the fire in the rocks below could no longer be seen. It was impossible to tell if they had doused the fire and broken camp, or settled in for the night.
Extremely broken and treacherous, the land between the rocks and the ridge where they waited was probably impassible in the dark, but the men spread out to guard all of the possible approaches, and a few that seemed impossible. They would not be caught napping in any case.
Unable to rest, Roger prowled the various guard positions making suggestions and giving encouragement to the newer and less experienced of the men. They had all responded very well to learning the tactics and discipline Roger had lived with so long in the Marine Corps, but they were in the early stages of training except for the 6 combat proven former Marines who had been with him in the daring rescue trip the year before.
First light of a late summer morning found them alert and waiting for whatever the day would bring. They all hoped for peace, but were prepared for war if they should be attacked. No smoke was seen from the rocks, and Roger fought a growing sense of wrongness about the whole affair. He knew he had not imagined the fire, but he wondered now if it might have been some lone stranger camping out there in the wilderness instead of bandits.
Even in the growing light, the terrain was almost too rough to contemplate traveling over, but it seemed important to send at least two scouts to discover what was going on below the rocks. Mutt and his crony, George were chosen for the task and they stripped down to minimal gear while Roger outlined his plan. They were to avoid contact at all costs and return before nightfall if possible. Roger contemplated sending another party of men around the east face of the mountain to come at the suspected campsite from the road below, but he didn't really have enough men to do that and still guard the ranch valley. The scouts knew they might not be rescued if they got into trouble.
A coil of rope over his shoulder, and a smile on his face, Mutt vanished down the slope in the growing light with George on his heels. George wasn't smiling... but that was just his way.
Bill Evans stretched in the early morning light, and wished he had a cigarette. That was about the only thing he really missed from the old civilization. There were other things to smoke, of course, but he'd just never developed much of a taste for it. But he still thought about it sometimes.
Two other men began to stir, and Bill expected the so-called "leader" to roll out any moment so he got up and began to roll his bed. The air was cold at this altitude, in spite of the summer, and he didn't even want to think about being out here during the winter. Last fall, after leaving the ranch, he'd managed to get to a good sized town and find some work, but as soon as the spring weather had settled he knew he didn't want to spend another winter in town.
He regretted now that he had been so stupid about the girl back at the ranch. Over the winter he had come to see how his hormones had torpedoed his good sense, and he wondered if there was any way he could mend the breach. He had recently joined this bunch of men who said they were looking for a homestead place, but he had realized their evil intent as soon as they turned off the highway into this broken country below the ranch. Glad he had not told them of his previous experience with Bradshaw, he wondered how he could thwart their plans without getting killed. They were all heavily armed, as was every man in this country now - and he feared they wouldn't hesitate to shoot him down if he got in their way.
It turned out that one of the men had been among the survivors of the original attack on the ranch last year. He was very adamant about the booby traps, but said he thought they could get past them by scaling the badlands and coming in from behind. Most of the men looked sceptical, but were greedy for the loot and women the leader promised were there for the taking.
Bill smiled to himself, knowing that each and every one of those women were armed and ready to fight too, but he didn't want to see any of them forced to defend themselves or their home if he could help it. He figured that might be a way to mend the fences he'd torn down. Now all he had to do was figure out how to go about it.
John Bighamton, the so-called leader, had forbidden anyone to light a fire again, so they ate cold stuff from their packs and prepared to move out. Only a few of the men were in the least used to working outdoors, and most were not hunters or soldiers, so they were a noisy and undisciplined bunch. Bighamton was pulling his hair out by the time he got everyone strung out and on the move, with half a dozen of the men threatening to quit and go back to town without even trying the assault. They'd heard about this Bradshaw bunch, and once they got a look at the landscape, the promise of easy pickings didn't sound nearly as good as it had in the bar two days before.
Bill quietly and unobtrusively worked his way to the far southern edge of the group and was almost out of sight when Bighamton appeared and ordered him back to the line of march. Bill just shrugged and acted dumb, not getting much closer to the others but trudging along as if he was happy to be there. He was afraid that John would keep special watch on him after that, but it soon became apparent that he was going to have all he could do to keep any of them moving in the right direction.
As the pale light increased and the slope got rougher, Bill took a chance and drifted completely out of the line and headed southeast, roughly toward where the road came around the mountain. Stopping for a breath after clearing the rogue group, he suddenly felt a cold, hard object in the back of his neck and threw up his hands.
Mutt came into his line of vision then, the bore of his .45 looking as wide as a cannon and pointed straight at his chest. But the look on Mutt's face was somewhat reassuring, so he smiled and waited to be invited to talk.
George then appeared, holding the gun that had been pressed to his neck a moment before, and he wasn't smiling at all. Of the two, Bill was far more afraid of George, but he knew Mutt was in charge.
"I saw you sneak away from that bunch of vultures - twice in fact," said Mutt. "Glad you got away the second time. Care to let us in on what they're up to?"
"They think they'll get up that draw and into the ranch that way," Bill said. "Most of them are useless as real fighters, but they're armed and greedy to steal anything they can."
"How'd you get to be with this bunch," George said gruffly. He'd been fairly good friends with Bill before things got bad last year, and he wasn't eager to trust him again.
"They said they were looking for a place to homestead, and I didn't have any other prospects so I came along, but I knew they were up to no good when they turned off the road there below yesterday. Either of you know John Bighamton? He's the leader and there are twenty men with him - not counting me!"
Mutt had never heard of him, but George had lived in the big town to the south for years and knew the man as a thief and braggart. He scratched his short beard and tried to remember everything he could about the man.
Keying the radio, Mutt gave a report to Roger and asked what they should do next. Roger was glad to know that Bill was not one of the bandits, most likely, but he figured they could sort that out later. Right now, they had raiders to discourage. He'd been looking at the broken slope before him earlier, and he couldn't see how anyone could get up without being picked off by the defenders. Surely, this Bighamton had something else in mind. He couldn't think that they could come in totally undetected.
One of the spotters waved for his attention just then, and he walked over to get his report. Through the strong scope, the bandits could be seen struggling up the slope and through the brush, but it appeared that they were turning more and more to the north and up toward the side of the mountain itself. This made no sense at all to Roger, as far as the attack was concerned, but it did keep the bandits out of range for all but the longest shots.
"Ok," he thought, "why do we want to wait for them to get here? Their intent is clear and we may not have any better chance than right now."
Calling the best marksmen with the long range rifles, he set them into position and let them shoot whenever they were ready. He'd almost waited too long, but the bandits in the front began to fall quickly, and the entire assault crumbled in a few moments. Roger hoped that Mutt and the others had cleared out far enough not to get in the way of the retreating rabble.
After a while, Roger could see through the scope that two trucks and an old car were leaving the rocky area far below, and he wondered if any of the bandits had been left behind. Most assuredly, this area would have to be booby trapped and guarded from now on. A single infiltrator would be far more dangerous, in the long run, than a large force and he didn't fool himself thinking nobody else would figure it that way. He knew Bighamton too, and he knew he'd be back.
Leaving a guard, the rest of the men saddled up and headed back to get some breakfast. Bradshaw waited until he saw Mutt and George with Bill, coming up the last part of the slope, then turned his mount toward the ranch. He was glad the prodigal had come home.
New Challenges, New Opportunities
Once again, the common room was crowded. Everyone there was anxious to hear about the raid and the potential problems ahead. Supper had been a mostly quiet affair with many low voiced conversations and even a few disagreements. Bradshaw and his team captains had spent the afternoon in conference with various elders and specialists among the community, and everyone was eager to hear what they had come up with. They were also very interested to hear how Bill Evans had figured into it, and why he had returned. The rumors had flown, but most people were content to wait and consider all the facts before they made up their mind.
Bill sat with George and a handful of other young men, cautiously sampling the newly brewed beer and trying to ignore the tension in the big room. Everyone had been polite to him so far, but he knew he had a way to go to be fully accepted again. He hadn't seen Carol yet, and wasn't looking for her. His infatuation seemed something from long ago or another life. He realized all over again just how young and stupid he had been. He also realized that the reason he'd been asked to leave was his arrogant and aggressive response to her rejection, refusing to take no for an answer.
He sighed deeply, and had just drained his glass when Bradshaw and the others came in. A hush settled over the whole company gathered there, and the Sergeant began his report in a tone that indicated both satisfaction and weariness - somehow reassuring.
Briefly describing the failed attack, he also told them how Bill had inadvertently joined the bandits before he knew their objective, and had done his best to avert the attack after it started.
Voices from around the room expressed appreciation and welcome. Then, the crowd becoming still again, Bradshaw went on.
"We've been working long, hard hours since spring, and it looks as if we're going to have to pick up the pace to get ready for this winter. Most of the faces Bill could see were stoic and calm, though a few of the older folk just grinned.
"We were able to drive off the raiders for now, but we will have to construct an extension of the booby traps and alarm system out into the lake valley and across the lower face of the mountain out there. We'll just move some of those on the north here that are now inside the extended ranch, but we'll have to build others because the new territory is considerably larger. That's going to take time, and might not be done before snow flies, so there will have to be more people on guard duty up there until we finish the traps." Heads around the room nodded, and there were a few murmurs of agreement.
"This means there will be fewer of us to manage all of the other jobs that must be done. We have a large harvest about to begin, and there are still living quarters to complete. We need to utilize our own beef more this year and not do any hunting because we don't have pasture for all the stock now and it will be spring at least before we can make arrangements with the folks to the northeast for use of their land. We had hoped to do that this year, but the prospect of new raiders makes that very risky. We just don't have enough people yet.
More murmurs greeted this announcement, but it wasn't really news to any of them except Bill. They'd talked about this before many times. The balance between the population and the production of food was pretty delicate, and they had to be careful of who they took in. Nobody was apt to forget Jason Cole and the attempt he'd made to destroy their community. They knew they'd been very fortunate not to have any other spies or traitors so far, and they all knew that it was just a matter of time before something like that happened again.
Roger waited for the voices to still, and then went on. "We also have a new problem." Motioning for Jake, the engineer to come forward, he stepped back and sat down on the bench against the wall.
Jake held his old Stetson hat and turned it slowly as he spoke. "I made a pretty big mistake and it's going to take a lot to fix it, but it seems we'll be even better off later if we can make the fix work." Puzzled looks from almost everyone spurred him to continue. "We should not have tapped all three holes for the artesian water up in the lake valley," he said. "Too much, too soon. I'm from the southwest originally, and didn't think it through well enough. When the spring snow melt starts, that valley will simply overflow and flood the farms and pastures here below. The dam we have is very small and very fragile, so it won't hold much at all."
Shocked looks and more murmurs ran around the room, but they quieted for him to continue.
"We're trying to figure out how to cap the springs so we can release water when we need it and cut it off when we don't. We haven't much time, and worse, we don't have the right machinery or parts to put valves on them. About the only thing we can do right away is blast and hope to close the two larger springs. We may just open them up farther, of course, which would really be a big mess.
He stood quietly, turning the hat for a few moments, and then went on. "Or, we can dig a good sized ditch and let the run off go into the badlands. That will buy us some time to find the valves and things we need to do it right. We don't have any heavy machines to do that digging, and we don't really have enough men to do it the old fashioned way, so the Good Lord is going to have to send us a miracle, one way or another." Jake sat down heavily and clapped the hat to his head until he remembered he was indoors and took it off again.
Bill stood up just then, which cut short the start of conversations and questions from a few. He was obviously nervous, but inside he began to feel a glow of joy because he could finally see where he could truly contribute to this community and, hopefully, regain his place here.
"It's not terribly far, and the road is still very good, so maybe it wouldn't be out of the question to go to the city and get those parts you need. I worked all winter for a man who drills wells, both water and oil, and he has more equipment than he could possibly use, considering current conditions. Maybe you can trade with him. Don is a good man, and has a large family besides. There's a chance they might even want to come join you all here. They were talking about it this spring because of the bandits, even in town. And Don's isn't the only family that might be interested."
Bradshaw had a knowing smile on his face as he thanked Bill for his suggestion. He'd actually thought of going to the city for supplies, but hadn't any way to know the conditions or who might be trusted there. Now he knew.
"And there was talk, Bill continued, of that town with a refinery south of here starting to sell diesel fuel. Don would have trucks to haul it too. But he doesn't have enough men to both haul and protect it, so you might be able to make several deals."
Many voices were raised in discussion of these possibilities, and the news about available fuel had several of them quite animated. One of the big problems was lack of fuel for the machines they did have, resulting in so many jobs being done the old pick and shovel way. With fuel, they could make so much better use of the manpower they did have. The prospect of one or more large and productive families coming in was exciting too.
Roger thanked Bill again, and asked if there was any other business they needed to discuss currently. Nobody ventured anything and, since they'd all had a busy and stressful day, the room was soon empty. But on the way out, many had stopped to welcome Bill back and shake his hand. They expressed great appreciation for his information and help with the raiders. Bill was a little embarrassed with those comments, however, since he didn't feel he'd contributed anything at all to their defense. He'd been willing, but never had the opportunity.
Bradshaw directed him to the bachelor's bunkhouse where he'd stayed before, and the community hummed with optimism as they all went their separate ways for the night.
"Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day," Betty thought to herself. She hadn't had an opportunity to share another problem. But it seemed that a trip to the city might just provide the solution there too. "Tomorrow, she said, and blew out the last lamp.
This is fiction. Any resemblance to actual people or places is purely unintentional.
It is a work in progress and may change or be published later.
Chapter 8 Chapter 14