In which we see how the other half lives and Natalie saves a life, or two.
“I don’t think the mayor will want to kill your friends. He’ll want to question them first. And the woman will be all right, of course, as long as she’s willing to work,” Arnie said.
“What do you mean,” Niall asked, surprised. “Are they going to make her a slave?”
“Slave?” Steve laughed. “Women aren’t slaves. The mayor may even take her into his household like he did with Alfred’s wife. You remember, Arnie, how there was all that debate about who was going to get her after Alfred was executed.”
“Yeah, but the mayor was younger then and probably thought he was the next Brigham Young or something. I bet he knows better now after the fuss his wife made.”
Niall felt a little better after that exchange. If the captives were going to be physically unharmed for several days, at least that should give the authorities time to work out something to rescue them. So long as the boys didn’t have the guns and ammunition that they hoped to get from him, he still had considerable leverage with them, so he felt safe enough for the time being. He knew that Jeeves must know what he was doing and would know that he was no longer with the Payer and the others. He, or it, would also know that the boys were not in the system and thus must be with some other group. It seemed obvious to Niall that the police must know what was going on. In fact, he couldn’t understand why they hadn’t appeared yet.
When the boys decided to establish another campsite several miles away from the abandoned camp, Niall didn’t try to talk them out of it.
“But I tell you things are just fine in the U.S. There was no collapse after the transition,” Natalie said as earnestly as she could.
“Do you take me for a fool? We know better than that. My own parents’ town was invaded by a huge band of outlaws. They destroyed everything downtown and my parents barely escaped with their lives. My parents know from personal experience what it’s like outside,” Cal replied.
“Okay, so you tell me what life is like for us outsiders since you seem to know all about it.”
“Well I know that you and the others in your party are rich.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s obvious. Look at your clothes, for instance. That dress you have on is very expensive. The seamstress who made it was very talented. Look how even the stitches are. Every one is the same size. And the seams are all very straight. Only a superb needlewoman could have done that. It must have taken days to make.”
“Then check your shoes. They’re made of fine leather that’s been expertly tanned to be so thin and flexible.”
Natalie sighed, “These shoes are not made of leather. They’re made of man-made materials. It’s some kind of plastic for the uppers and something else for the soles.”
“Sure, and they were put together by magic. No, those shoes were also made by expert cobblers. The seams there are too perfect to have been made by an ordinary man. The buckles are made of metal that must have been shaped by a jeweler to be so thin and uniform. You can’t even see the hammer marks.”
“These buckles are just for decoration. They don’t hold the shoe on my foot.”
“You see, you admit they’re the shoes of a woman of idleness and luxury.”
“They’re the shoes of anybody who wants them. They’re standard issue, right off the rack.”
“If that wasn’t enough, look at your hands.” Natalie had given up on the gloves, since they were quite soiled. Naturally, she washed her hands in the creek frequently. “Those hands never did dishes or washed clothes nor cooked nor did chores.” At this Natalie smiled. “Those hands are soft and without calluses. They are the hands of idleness. Only a rich woman could have hands like that. And the skin of your face never spent days working in the fields. It’s too perfect, too smooth, too pale to be anything but the skin of a woman pampered from birth.” Natalie was mentally comparing her complexion, exposed to the weather while she rode and went camping, with that of Leyden. “You can’t fool me. Your wealth stands out like a fire in the night.”
“Okay there’s no point in our arguing about that. What do you think life is like for ordinary people on the outside?”
“Well, I’m sure it’s a lot like our life here in the valley except that we’re a lot safer here. We keep out the roving bands of outlaws. Our women don’t have to fear being raped or sold into prostitution.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t accuse me of being a prostitute.”
“Ma’am, at first I thought you might be but when I realized how old you are and when you didn’t make any offers, I decided that you must not be.”
“Why, how kind of you. I’m flattered.”
“It’s nothing, ma’am.”
“Well, go on, what’s it really like out there?”
Cal looked at Natalie out of the corner of his eye as if he wasn’t sure whether she was making fun of him or not but continued with his description in any event.
“There are big cities that are crumbling into ruin, those that haven’t been bombed into radioactive rubble. We know that there’ve been wars because we can see that Albuquerque has a radioactive glow sometimes when the sky is right.”
“That’s the city lights, not radioactivity.”
“We’ve seen the planes go over headed that way. We know what they’re doing. Anyway, there’s still some industry somewhere because of the Jeep but it’s not like it was in the old days. And there’s starvation lots of years because the gangs from the cities come out and steal from the farmers. There’s no oil, so what cars there are have to run on alcohol made from corn.”
“Well, you have me there. Some cars do run on vegetable oils.”
“See? And you thought I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
“Go on. What else do you know about my world?”
“We’re in the last of days. The end of the world is coming soon. The time of revelations is at hand. Of course I don’t know a lot about that. I don’t think Dad has calculated exactly what day it’s going to be but it’ll be sometime relatively soon, certainly within the next few years. I mean the wars and such prove that.”
“Do we still have TV and cell phones and computers?”
“Those were mostly the work of the devil. It’s just as well they were destroyed when the evil money came in.”
“What about the Payers? Felipe is a Payer, you know.”
“The Payers are priests of Satan. They’re another reason we know that we’re at the end of time. They’re responsible for the destruction of the old ways.”
“You’re right about that, too. They have destroyed many of the old ways.”
“They can’t be trusted. They pretend to be humble and modest but really they’re devious and cruel. They practice strange rites by moonlight. If it wasn’t for my dad, they’d have visited us with plagues and disease and made our crops fail. His prayers and our faith in him have prevented their evil from touching us.”
“I guess you’re lucky to have him for your father. Does he say why the Payers care about your little community in the valley?”
“He says that we may be the last good people left on Earth while Satan reigns here. He says the Payers would give anything to destroy us.”
“Since you’re a beacon of light leading to the true faith who might lead others back to God if the Payers would only let them?”
“Pretty much, yeah. You do understand, then, why we have to be so careful with him?” Cal said, nodding toward where Felipe was tied.
“Oh yes, I understand why you’re so afraid of him. He’s a threat to your way of life.”
“Hush!” Cal held his finger before his lips and tensed, looking around the perimeter of their clearing. There was no sound so far as Natalie could tell though she listened closely.
“What is it?” Natalie asked and received a glare and a finger to the lips from Cal.
He slowly stood and started for the tent when a loud voice sounded, “Stay where you are. If you reach for your gun we’ll cut you down where you stand.”
Cal froze in position and slowly raised his hands above his shoulders.
Natalie muttered, “Rescued at last.” Then she saw several men dressed in what could only be crude uniforms coming out of the woods with Billy and Jean being dragged behind two of them. It was looking like a frying pan to fire situation.
The party was composed of about a dozen men, all bearded, and most of them armed with rifles, though one carried what looked like an assault rifle. They quickly searched the camp (which had little enough in it) and took Cal’s gun and knife. They also took the belt and wrist watch which Cal had taken from Felipe and used himself. Felipe was untied but treated rather roughly. When Natalie protested, she was told to shut up and that they knew how to treat a Payer. For some reason, Jean looked a little embarrassed at that.
The party set off shortly through the woods carrying all the gear (mostly suitcases) that was found in the camp. Cal and Billy were required to carry both their own backpacks and those of Arnie and Steve. Two of the party flanked the Payer but Jean and the rest rated only a single guard. Natalie was not required to carry anything.
They trudged on for a number of miles with Natalie complaining every now and then about wanting to rest or relieve herself since the men seemed to expect her to be frail that way and she was afraid that Felipe might not be up to the exertion. They stopped briefly at their own camp and loaded up their gear on a simple pull wagon with wooden wheels. It creaked and bounced but did the job. Natalie was fascinated to see that there was no metal involved in its construction.
By dusk Natalie was feeling quite tired and her pleas for rest were heartfelt. Her feet were sore and her back was sore and it seemed like she could hardly remember the last time she was able to stand on level ground. It was then that they came in view of lights in the distance.
The ridgeline they had been following continued upward but the path diverged down toward a cluster of houses, several of which had a soft flickering light coming through their windows.
“Home at last,” Natalie heard one of her – guides? rescuers? mutter.
“Hello the village! Fred Bascome and deputies returning.” The leader of their party cried out.
“Welcome, Fred,” came a voice from their left. “The Mayor’s expecting you. Go right on to the meeting house.”
“Thanks, Juan. Do you think we could eat something first?”
“Better not. Check in first and then, maybe. The Mayor’s kind of upset.”
“He’ll be even more upset when he finds out what’s happening.”
“What’s up? Outsiders coming?”
“Worse than that. You just keep out of sight and alert. We could have real trouble.”
“Right you are.”
The party, its prisoners, and guests continued down the hill to the collection of houses where some skinny dogs and kids came out to meet them.
A rather tall man with the usual full beard came out on the front porch of the largest of the houses.
“What have you got there, Fred?”
“Your Honor, we caught two of the rebels and some outsiders they were dealing with.”
“I can see they’re outsiders. What kind of dealing?”
“Well, your Honor, from what one of the outsiders tells us they were dealing for guns to come back and attack us. Of course, they probably would’ve led a party of outsiders back as well to help their revolution.”
“No! I didn’t say that.” Jean was almost trembling and he pleaded. “There’s no attack planned.”
“Shut up, outsider,” the Mayor commanded and Jean’s escort grabbed his arm in a hard grip, at which Jean winced.
“What makes you think so, Fred?”
“Well, this outsider admitted that the other two of the rebels went off with another outsider to get guns. Since just four rebels with guns isn’t any threat to your Honor and they should know that, it’s obvious that they must have more help than just guns. Besides, why should they just give them guns? They’re bound to at least follow them to see what they can get.”
“You’re right, Fred. This is serious. You were right to bring your squad back with you rather than splitting your party. Take the rebels to the shed, lock them in, and post a guard. Bring the outsiders into the house.”
Billy and Cal were pushed toward a sizable shed beside the house and the outsiders were escorted into the house, their bags bringing up the rear.
“Okay, let’s see what we’ve got here. Is this the Payer?”
“Yes, sir. You can see that he is dressed in all white clothing, he has no rings or other jewelry and he has no money.”
“Other than the all white clothes, is there nothing else?”
“This outsider said that the other man was a Payer,” and Fred pointed at Jean. “He also is the one that told us that the other two rebels had gone with another outsider to get more guns.”
“Who are you?” the Mayor said to Jean.
“I’m just a hitchhiker that was given a ride by these people. I had nothing to do with them. It’s just a coincidence,” Jean said, earnestly pleading his case.
“What about her?” the Mayor asked jerking his thumb at Natalie.
“I don’t know. She was with the other two when they stopped for me. I guess she’s one of them.”
“Who are you, woman?” the Mayor asked Natalie sternly.
“I am Natalie Carraway. I’m in training to become a Payer.”
This was met by a gasp from several of the deputies and a narrowing of the eyes by the Mayor.
“Then why are you wearing that ring? Payers aren’t supposed to have rings.”
“This is my wedding ring. My husband died several years ago,” Natalie said mentally crossing her fingers. “I wear it in memory of him. When I become a Payer, I’ll give this ring to my daughter to keep in memory of her father.”
“Why aren’t you home with your family now?”
“Are you asking why I decided to become a Payer?”
“No, but go ahead anyway. Tell us why you want to become a daughter of Satan.”
“The Payers are not in league with the devil. The Payers are good people who do good things. I am a good person so inasmuch as I no longer have responsibilities for my family and I didn’t want to be useless, I decided I should become a Payer.”
“Where are they?” the door to the room crashed open and a tall, painfully thin man with a scraggly beard that was once light brown, but was now mostly white, burst into the room from the porch. “They told me we’ve captured a group of Payers that were trying to invade our valley.”
“Relax, preacher. We got one Payer and one Payer-in-training, that’s all.”
“Are you the hell spawn?” the preacher thundered in a voice that quavered just a little at the end as he faced Jean.
“I’m just a hitchhiker. I’m not a Payer. I was just trying to get a ride.” Jean was whining by the end of his speech and the preacher almost visibly swelled.
“Trafficking with the Devil, that’s what you were doing.”
“No, he’s the Payer. He’s the one,” Jean pleaded pointing at Felipe who was standing rather calmly between his guards, their hands now gripping his arms.
“Kill him! Kill him now!” the preacher stormed at Felipe.
“No! Let him be. He’s no threat now. He’s completely in our power. Preacher, you got to relax. Everything’s just fine.”
“But he’s a Payer.”
“He’s just a man, preacher. He’s just flesh and blood. He can’t hurt us as long as we keep an eye on him.”
“Well, tie him up at least. Tie him to that chair.”
“Preacher, he’s old and tired and I think my daughter, pregnant as she is, could take him in a fair fight.”
“But his weapons. How do you know he ain’t armed?”
“He’s been searched by our deputies and he was searched by the rebels. If he had any weapons, we would’ve taken them off him by now. So relax and let me get on with this questioning.”
The flushed face of the preacher began to fade to its normal pallor with a few red blotches and he went around behind Felipe where he somehow felt safer.
“Okay, what’s you name again?”
“Natalie, what are you doing coming to our valley?”
“We were curious to see the roadblock on the main road that your village set up. The other member of our party had been asking about the colony and Mr. Sanchez was kind enough to leave his usual route and drive near the roadblock. Of course, we never actually got that far since your young men stopped us.”
“I guess you realize that ain’t good enough. But I don’t hurt women if I can help it, so I won’t press you on it for now. Of course, if these other guys don’t tell me the truth, I may have to come back to you.”
The mayor turned toward Felipe. “Payer. Why are you here?”
“The lady has told you the truth, which you would not accept. If it will make you feel better, let me know what you want to believe and I will say that you are right.” Felipe smiled slightly and winked at Fred who stood beside the Mayor.
The Mayor hit him once across the face with the back of his fist. It knocked off the glasses Felipe wore, cutting the bridge of his nose in the process, and staggered him. He would have fallen, had the men on either side not held his arms.
“Just because you’re an old man doesn’t mean I’m going to take any insolence off you. I’ll know the truth when I hear it. Now spit it out.”
Felipe spit out some blood from his mouth onto the floor and began, “We are from the most powerful gang in the whole of New Mexico. Your colony is the last place in the State that we don’t control. We were sent on a scouting mission. When your young men captured us, it seemed a great opportunity to capture some of your people, the two who went with our friend, and to spy on your defenses. I am to report back by hidden radio.”
The grip on his arms got tighter as he went on and the young men of the guard began to look tense and finger their weapons. But the Mayor remained rock hard.
“Where is the radio?”
“Cal took it off me and Fred, here, took it from Cal. He has it on his wrist there.”
Fred looked at the wristwatch that he had placed on his own arm as if it were a snake. He quickly stripped it off and handed it to the Mayor.
“This don’t look like no radio to me. And don’t give me that Dick Tracey stuff about wrist radios. I seen cell phones. I even owned one back before the Fall. This don’t look like one of them.”
“That’s because you don’t have to press buttons any more. You just talk to it and it does what you tell it to do.”
“How do you turn it on?”
“It’s on all the time. It’s on right now.”
“Turn it off!”
The Mayor handed the “watch” to Felipe who couldn’t lift his hands to take it because of the men holding them.
“Let him turn it off.”
Felipe said, “It doesn’t turn off. It’s made to be on all day every day.”
“Who’s listening on the other end?”
“Nobody, so far as I know.”
“Well what good is it if nobody’s listening?”
“A computer is listening.”
“Don’t give me that shit. Computers don’t listen to radios. Besides, the computers are all gone.”
“Okay, then. It’s just a wristwatch. May I have it back now?”
“No!” yelled the preacher. “It may be a weapon. Don’t let him have it. Keep it away from him.”
The Mayor smiled and dropped the watch into his pocket. “Just to keep you happy, preacher.” Then, looking hard at Felipe, “Tell me why you came here.”
“Let’s see, where was I? Oh yes, while our confederate lures your two young men into a trap, we are to distract you into thinking we are weak and no threat to you.”
“I told you, Mayor. We got to kill them.”
“Not me. I ain’t one of them. I didn’t do nothing.” Jean was trembling with fear now.
“I didn’t.” Jean finished almost in a whisper.
“Go on, Payer.”
“Well, we left a trail through the woods that anyone could follow, so when the rest of our gang comes they’ll have no trouble coming right here. We got lots more men than your pitiful dozen or so. Also, our guns are lots better. You won’t have a chance.”
“What are we gonna do?” from one of the men in the crowd.
“Shut up, everybody! This Payer is lying through his teeth.”
“But isn’t what I said what you wanted me to say?” asked Felipe incredulously.
“Payer, I hit you once do you want another shot with my good hand?”
“No, I’m just pointing out that you can’t believe anything you get by torture. We victims of your torture will just keep saying things until you hear what you want to hear or we pass out. You’ll never be able to trust anything we say no matter what pain or stress you have us endure. You don’t even know whether killing us will make things better or worse for you. You don’t know whether you need us as hostages or not. You simply don’t have enough information and you can’t get it from us because you can’t trust what we say under any circumstances. You might as well let us all get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure your men could use the sleep because they’ve had a hard day in the woods.”
The Mayor just looked at Felipe and his eyes half closed. The room got quiet and stayed that way for several minutes. The deputies seemed afraid to attract the Mayor’s attention and the preacher seemed to alternate between a flush of anger and a pallor of sickly fear.
Then a woman’s anguished cry could be heard, a cry of deep and fearful pain.
“My daughter!” the Mayor said and turned quickly away from the frozen tableau to hurry from the room. They soon heard his footsteps thundering up the stairs to the second floor. Fred, in the Mayor’s absence said, “Put those bags down over by the table. Let’s check them for weapons again.”
That seemed to be something they could do to take their mind off the trouble upstairs and the possible trouble outside. They moved the several small suitcases to a large dining table. Though its surface gleamed with wax, it had clearly seen better days for it was scratched in several places and was a little wobbly.
The first suitcase was Jean’s and the clothing was examined with some wonder at the high quality. The underwear was especially noteworthy since the shorts had elastic waistbands. The socks were noted for being quite thin and having no seams at the toes. The shirts had buttons of sturdy yellow plastic, which impressed some. Most of the men had strings to tie to hold their shirts together and the seams were thick due to the thick thread that was used.
But the most impressive items were the toiletries. The can of shaving foam both frightened and humored them. It was frightening at first as it squirted out of the nozzle, but then they got over their fear and the scent that suffused from the soap made them laugh out loud. Jean showed them how he used the lather and then reached for the safety razor but his hands were grabbed and he was held back.
After some earnest explanations, Jean was allowed to draw the razor across his stubble to demonstrate that the razor was safe for him and the others. They were also amazed at how closely the blade cut the hairs. They felt Jean’s face and swore that his skin was softer than a woman’s skin and they questioned his manhood. Jean flushed but was afraid to do anything about their rough teasing.
Then Fred said, “How come your clothes are the same color as hers if you’re just a hitchhiker? How come you’re wearing that yellow just like she has on?”
“Well, it’s cheaper that way. They only got couple of colors left, just white and yellow, so all the Payers wear white and everybody else wears yellow.”
Though Fred was not convinced, it sounded plausible. Sort of. Natalie was grinning as if she knew a great joke she wasn’t telling but Fred wasn’t sure he knew who the joke was on so he didn’t ask about it.
“Which bag is next?”
“This one. It’s the Payer’s.”
Again the quality of the sewing and the fineness of the material were impressive but the elastic waistbands were old hat. However, Felipe had an electric razor which stole the show. At first they thought it might be a bomb or some other weapon. But Jean and Natalie offered to demonstrate it for them and it was small so they soon were turning it on and off to hear it buzz. Felipe even offered to let them shave him if they liked and they did. Into the midst of this near revelry the Mayor strode minutes later with a grim look on his face.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“We’re just trying out the Payer’s fancy razor.” Fred said somewhat embarrassed.
“We may have invaders coming into the valley right now and you’re trying out a razor. Want your corpse to look its best, I guess… First we’ve got to double the guard. Second, we have to notify every man we have to be ready for invasion. I don’t want any of them going off hunting tomorrow without permission. Third, we have to figure that they’re really after the mine. If things are as bad out there as it looks, that silver will draw then like… well, they’ll come for that if nothing else. We’ll use it as bait. When they come there, we’ll ambush them. But first we have to spot them coming in. They’ll have to have their main body approach by daylight but their scouts may have the nerve to come in by night. That’s OK. We’ll let them come. We want them to find the mine. That’s what they’re mostly looking for, anyway.”
“What about our farms? How are we going to protect them if we’re all up at the mine?”
“If we don’t beat this invasion and beat it bad, you won’t be able to protect your farms anyway. We’ll have to bring the women and kids all together where they can protect each other with the help of a few men. Gordon’s place is probably the best. It’s away from the mine and he’s got that big barn. Preacher, you’ll be in charge there. Fred, send two of your men out tonight to get the upper valley people down to Gordon’s. The three old guys can stay with the women but we’ll need the rest. We’ll meet them at Gordon’s place, let’s say about two hours after dawn. Pick them and get them started now.”
Fred saluted and left the room hurriedly.
“Now let’s see what’s in the rest of these suitcases. Open them up.”
The men quickly replaced Jean’s and Felipe’s suitcases on the table with the two bags that belonged to Natalie and opened them. Again the clothing impressed the men with its quality. The toiletries were even more impressive, with their colorful plastic containers. Nothing suspicious was found, however.
“Preacher, ask my wife to come to us if she’s not to busy with Rachel.”
“Right,” he said and left the room and his feet sounded rapidly on the stairs.
“If we need a hostage, the Payer is our best bet so lock him up with Cal and Billy.”
As Felipe was hustled out of the room by his guards, the Mayor turned to Jean.
“You seem to be the most talkative one. We’ll take you with us. If we need a negotiator to go out in the open between us and the raiders, he’ll be the one. We can always shoot him if he tries to run.”
Jean turned a little pale and wet his lips during a weak smile.
“What’ll we do with the woman?”
“My wife can take care of her.”
“I can take care of whom?” came a strong voice from a strong looking woman of about 45, though her hair was heavily streaked with white and her skin was somewhat worn for a woman of that age.
“This woman’s an outsider, obviously. She says her name is Natalie. She also says she’s in training to be a Payer. I don’t trust her at all, so watch her well. These are her things.”
“Where should I put her?”
“Use the guest room. Lord knows we haven’t any reason to expect guests.”
“The guest room? It’s full of junk.”
“Well, put her somewhere. Just don’t lose her.”
“Get your bags and come with me,” she said and turned to go.
Natalie looked at the Mayor steadily for a moment and then stepped forward to the table to repack her things. She wasted no time but showed no evidence of hurry and packed everything with care, though she shuddered at the prospect of wearing things the men had touched. Long before she had finished, the Mayor’s wife had returned and was impatiently waiting by the door to the hallway.
Natalie, screwing up her courage, took a bag in each hand and turned toward the door, moving with no hesitation but also not hurried in any way. She was looking her hostess in the eye. As she followed her up the stairs, there was another rending cry of agony from the floor above and the Mayor’s wife started and then hurried up the remaining stairs and almost ran down the hall toward the source of the sound.
Natalie hurried herself at that, and following, came upon the master bedroom which had as its center of attention a young woman who appeared to be in her late teens. She was lying on the bed with a twisted nightgown, her face pouring sweat and her face contorted in pain. She was obviously in labor and was having a hard time of it. Her face was grey even in the dim light of two lamps, which were smoking slightly and smelled of hog fat.
An elderly man with sleeves rolled up above bloody hands and arms was attending her and didn’t even look up when the two women entered the room. There was a younger nearly teen-aged girl sitting on the other side of the bed, who strongly favored the woman in labor.
“Doctor, what happened?”
“I was trying to move the child into a better position but my attempts failed. I just can’t do it.”
“What can we do?”
“If we had a hospital, it would be no problem but under these conditions there’s nothing I can do. Even if I had the anesthetics and the antibiotics, there isn’t enough light in here or anywhere in this valley to operate. I couldn’t see what I was doing.”
Now that she could see the doctor’s face, Natalie could see that the old man was about on his last legs as well.
“May I help?” Her words came as a surprise to both the doctor and the others.
The doctor squinted at her in the dim light and said,” I don’t know you. Who are you.”
“I am Natalie Carraway. I’m an outsider but I think I might be able to help the young lady here.”
The Mayor’s wife turned to her with a surprised but hopeful look on her face. “Can you help? What can you do?”
“I’ve had some medical training when I was in the Army many years ago. Also I’m relatively fresh and my hands are noticeably smaller than yours, doctor. Perhaps, under your direction, I can move the child so it will present its head first rather than its rump.”
“ Well, I don’t know.”
“I also have some antiseptic wipes in my bag here, which should help.”
“Please let her try, Doctor. I don’t know what hope we have otherwise.”
“All right. We’ll try it,” He sighed.
“Doctor, ma’am, is there some hot water and soap so I can wash?”
“We got some hot water left over from supper but we ain’t got proper soap,” the lady of the house confessed, her head drooping.
“I have some hand soap here as well so if you can show me to the hot water?”
“I’ll get it now. You just wait.” and she hurried out of the room.
“Doctor, what’s the position of the baby and the cord?”
“As far as I can tell, we’re okay with the cord. It’s about as simple as it can be. The baby’s on its back with both legs pulled up to its chest. Lying that way, it’s just too big for the passage.”
“Which way should I be trying to turn it after I push it in a ways?”
“I can’t be sure without a sonogram but from feeling from outside I think it would be best to move the hips up and to your right, her left of course. If you can get an arm between the last two fingers of your hand and try to guide the shoulder down while you push up with your thumb and index finger…”
“Here it is. Just let me pour this out the window, there now you can use this basin to wash. That was my grandmother’s basin. It’s over 150 years old.” Now that there was something to do she was talking almost compulsively.
Natalie had taken the soap from her bag and removed her blouse, retaining only her underwear. At this she drew a gasp from the other girl in the room but her mother quieted her with a stern glance and a finger to the lips as Natalie began to wash. The water wasn’t really hot but then, Natalie thought, the operating theatre was hardly sterile and she wondered whether the doctor had washed at all before setting to work. Having lathered and rinsed twice, she turned with both arms held up before her, not consciously imitating the doctor movies she had seen as a young woman.
“Shall I begin?” she said as she suppressed a tremble of fear.
“I tell you Adam, she saved their lives. The doctor had given up and Rachel was about at the end of her strength. You’d have thought she did this sort of thing twice a week the way she just got right in there. It took several tries and she was really tired when she finished, but we have a fine grandson now.”
A frown briefly crossed her face and her cheery mood was a bit forced but she was determined to be optimistic. “She’ll be just fine. She lost a lot of blood and she’s very tired but she’s past the worst of it. She had the baby at her breast when I left the room. I’ve got to go back. She’s very weak and I don’t trust Cindy to do for her.”
She turned and left the room.
The Mayor resumed his seat at the table and continued eating the boiled potatoes and milk that was his breakfast this morning. He still had an hour before he was to meet the others near the mine to set up the ambush. That would be the easy part. The hard part would be to be sure they got all the raiders before they could fight back. They only had 14 rifles and the one assault rifle and only a couple of hundred rounds of ammunition left. They couldn’t depend on some of it to fire, either. Some of the men had been very careless with how they had stored the cartridges. The bows they had been making were just not very good and the arrows weren’t very straight. He doubted that they would shoot even 100 yards. Most of the deer that they had taken without using the guns had been snared. But even that wasn’t working so well. The ropes they had made from vines kept falling apart and they still hadn’t been able to make decent rope from the cotton they grew.
Things were going downhill fast. Paint was needed on most of the houses and they had none. Losing a knife was an absolute disaster. The mine still had some silver but it took a huge investment in work to get a tiny amount of silver. Many of the men would only work there if threatened. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen someone wearing anything that wasn’t patched and he couldn’t remember what year it had been when he had given up on the last of his underwear. His head itched from lice and he was losing weight.
Each year he would pray for a better year next year but it never happened. Maybe it would be better to just give up and let the raiders kill them all. But he just couldn’t give up. He loved his wife, who had lost her beauty years ago from the hard work, and he loved his daughters and even his rebel son. Yes, admit it. His son was almost certainly one of the young rebels, perhaps even their leader, if history were any guide. Drinking the last of the milk from the bowl and rinsing the bowl from the bucket of water next to the sink, the Mayor picked up his gun and headed out to face what might be the last day of his life.
Fred met him just outside the door.
“Looks like everybody is moving. The women and kids should all be at Gordon’s place before noon, except your family, of course. Can we move Rachel? Oh, and congratulations on your grandson. They told me it’s a boy.”
“We’ve got to move her. This is the first place the raiders will come if they follow the road. I can’t believe they’d try to move a large body of men in any other way. The hills are just too difficult unless you know the trails.”
“What if Arnie and Steve show them one of the trails?”
“Then they’d use the North pass because that’s closest to the mine and avoids the main roadblock. Oh, any word from any of the lookouts or the guards at the roadblock?”
“No, nothing. Nobody’s seen a thing.”
“I hope that’s good news.”
“Preacher, did the Son of Satan disappear in a puff of smoke overnight?”
“No but he did snore a little. Scared me half to death when he first did it.”
“I’m leaving it up to you to move Rachel and the rest of the folks here to Gordon’s place. I’ll leave you Juan to help keep an eye on the Payer. You can use Cal and Billy as porters to carry Rachel on a litter.”
“Doc looks exhausted. We might have to carry him, too.”
“Have the kids pull a wagon with all the potatoes we can move and take a couple of the milk cows as well. It should be easy enough to herd them along in front.”
“Damn it Arnold, I can’t do everything. We’ll just have to come back for the potatoes and the cows.”
“Okay, I guess you’re right. Get them when you can. I’ll try to get word to you as soon as I can after the fight’s over. Be sure you stay alert at Gordon’s because there may be stragglers from the main body that you’ll have to take care of.”
“Can you spare us a second gun?”
“No I can’t. We just barely have enough as it is and even then I’m counting on a couple of the guys to hit something with their arrows.”
“Arnold, I just want you to know that if anything happens, I really appreciate what you’ve done for us here in the Valley. Without your strength and taking over the way you did we wouldn’t have lasted even the first winter. You’ve been a true friend and father to us all.”
“Thanks, preacher. But if I don’t do the right thing today that won’t amount to a hill of beans.”