The whole convoy was quiet, but no one was quieter than Caleb the Ortega guardsman. As they approached the crossroads to Badger Creek, the young man’s silence stood out, even amid all the other silences.
Yesterday, Caleb could not stop talking about the Badger Creek supervisory and the first things he would do when he returned. Laura had heard him telling Bill Keo all about the fort where he was posted. It lay west of the ruins of Damoyne, a few kims south of the Eighty Road, keeping peace among the settlements scattered along the rivers and streams that branched across that part of the Yowa. He described all the things he’d brought back from Davenport for his friends in the Badger Creek garrison. A pouch of good pipeleaf for Hal and the boys. An old paperbook for Shauna the Doctor, who knew her letters and would read to the guardsmen some nights in the fort’s common hall. A little wooden wolfdog, painted in vibrant colors, for the supervisor’s young son.
That was yesterday. Whatever Caleb’s thoughts were now, he kept them to himself. He trudged wordlessly down the road, staring straight ahead, into the empty distance.
It was around midday, soon after Captain Syed had caught up with the convoy and Bucky Malla had not, that they reached the crossroads. The road that led south was rough and narrow, made of dirt and creetrock gravel, but it seemed well traveled. On a nearby hill, there was a watchtower. A silver-gray flag with the red bisox of Clan Ortega still hung limply from its ramparts, but the little square perch on top, shaded beneath a crinkled iron sheet, stood deserted.
Captain Syed called a halt.
Looking up at the abandoned watchtower, the creases in Caleb’s brow deepened. Laura felt as if she could practically see the lump rise in his throat. Finally, he squinted down the road south, adjusting the shoulder straps of his carrysack.
“Well, I suppose this is where I leave you folks,” he said.
The words had a forced gaiety and trailed off into a nervous chuckle.
Captain Syed announced that she meant to accompany the young man back to his garrison to see if she couldn’t exchange a word or two with the Badger Creek supervisor.
“Fort’s not a far walk as I recollect,” she said. “Why don’t you all just rest yourselves here a spell beneath them trees, get some food in your bellies. I won’t be long.”
Captain Syed turned to Pa then.
“I hate to ask this, Ingalls,” she said. “You mind tagging along with us to the fort? If you feel you ought to stay with your family, I won’t press you. But you’re our ablest shot now that Buck… that he’s no longer with us, Allah yarhemuhu. And, well, I’d just feel a might better knowing we’ve got your rifle at our backs.”
Pa looked at Ma. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t move her head in one direction or the other. But her eyes said “no.”
The tiniest shadow of a grimace passed over Pa’s lips.
“Of course,” he said. He wheeled the handcar to the side of the road and shouldered his rifle.
“Hector, convoy’s yours,” said Captain Syed. “Two hours, you understand? Let’s say two and a half at most. Then you call it no matter. That clear? We’ll catch up down the road if we have to.”
Laura stiffened at that, thinking how they had left Bucky Malla behind. He too was supposed to catch up down the road.
Mr. Chavez only nodded. He squinted up at the sky as if taking a mental reading of the sun’s position. Meanwhile, Captain Syed, Caleb, and Pa all started south, down the road towards Badger Creek.
There was an unopened barrel of dried turnips in the back of the bisox car. Mr. Chavez scooped up piles of the shriveled, salty turnip chips onto plates and handed them around, along with a helping of saltmeat and soymeal crackers.
When Ma handed her a plate, Laura thought at first that she would surely break her teeth. She had grown to hate the hard, dry soymeal crackers that the convoy ate so often, and the turnip chips seemed like they would be little better. Laura gnawed on one experimentally, twisting and pulling it between her jaws, unable to bite off a manageable chunk.
But then Mr. Chavez passed around tin bowls of apple core vinegar. The amber liquid was mixed with spices, and a dark puddle of fermented soy paste floated on top. When Laura dipped the turnip slices into the vinegar, they softened and plumped.
She flinched in surprise when she bit into one of the vinegar-soaked chips. The bold sour taste made her face pucker. Yet Laura soon decided she liked the sensation, and she began soaking up as much sauce as she could with each slice of turnip. She tried the same thing with the saltmeat and crackers and discovered that was good too.
Devonte Aguilar seemed less satisfied with the food. Laura overheard him refusing the plate that was offered to him, insisting that he wasn’t hungry. When his mother kept urging him to eat, he grew angry with her.
“I said I don’t want any blasted turnips, Mother!” he snapped loudly.
Many people turned to look. They had not heard Devonte speak to his mother this way before or use such strong language. Complaining of the midday heat, Devonte retreated to the shade beneath the Aguilars’ handcar to sulk as the rest of them finished their meal.
Eventually, the plates and bowls were all wiped down and put away. The turnip barrel was sealed and hoisted back into the wagon. Still there was no sign of Pa or Captain Syed.
They waited. It seemed to Laura as if two hours passed and then passed again, many times over, but each time that Mr. Chavez clambered down from the bisox wagon to consult the position of the sun, he climbed right back up again without any sense of urgency and made no effort to ready the convoy for departure.
Just as the fear bubbling up in Laura’s belly felt like it was about to boil over, three shapes appeared on the horizon. There were the two tall figures of Pa and Captain Syed and the somewhat shorter figure of Caleb the guardsman. Everyone stood to watch as the figures marched their way back to the crossroads.
“Thank you, Lord. Thank you,” Laura heard Ma whisper to herself.
Laura was happy that Pa was back, but she was surprised that Caleb was returning as well. She knew that must mean something was wrong at the Badger Creek supervisory.
The faces of Pa and Captain Syed were solemn as they approached the convoy. Caleb looked worse, face white and eyes downcast. Captain Syed stopped, slipping her thumb into her heavy belt, hand resting in the space between her pistol and the pouch where she kept her chewing leaf. The others gathered around.
Pa told Mary and Laura to take his rifle back to the handcar and to give the axles a fresh greasing. Laura nodded, but she walked with tiny, slow steps, dawdling back as long as she could to listen.
“Fort’s abandoned,” Laura heard Captain Syed say, spitting emphatically onto the creetrock road. Her tone seemed to say that she’d half-expected as much.
“Didn’t venture further,” she continued, “so I can’t speak for the rest of the settlement. But I expect anyone’s fled west towards Lildaka who’s well enough. Small wonder we ain’t passed any eastward convoys. Wolfdog Ortega’s probably got the City of Mounds locked down good and tight. We’ve got some time in quarantine to look forward to if nothing else.”
Janice Khan asked a question, but her voice was too hushed to hear. Mary was tugging Laura’s arm, and Laura finally allowed herself to be led across the road to the handcar, away from the adult discussion.
And so the convoy carried on westward.
During the day, it was hard to be scared. As long as they were following the Great Eighty Road through the open Yowa countryside, danger felt far away. What’s more, the days that followed were stubbornly beautiful. There suddenly seemed to be not a single cloud above them. With the sun shining so bright, it was easy to forget about all the bad things that lurked in the shadows. Surely, no harm could befall them under such a blue blue sky.
Nights were different. They kept watch in twos now. Everyone took their turn, staying awake in shifts throughout the whole long night. Where they could, they strung twine from the trees or bushes surrounding their campsites. These hemp webs they decorated with tin plates and other objects that would clank and jangle when disturbed. Sometimes, they would gather sticks into delicate piles that would crunch underfoot, concealing the noisy traps in a wide ring around the convoy’s camp.
In some ways, the rhythms of life on the road continued. Ma and Mr. Chavez continued to fix suppers. Captain Syed and the Khan cousins continued to lay out their mats for evening prayer. Mr. Aguilar continued to read out passages each evening from his books. Everyone continued to help one another maintain their cars and cargo. Yet, all of this was colored now by what had happened. Every activity had taken on a darker, more serious hue.
Evening was no longer a jolly time for singing and showtales. They kept their fires smaller now and extinguished them earlier. When the convoy now stopped to make camp after a long day of travel, it was not a welcome rest as it had once been but something to be endured until morning came.
One evening, a few days after leaving the deserted Badger Creek supervisory behind, Laura sat with Ma and Mary, listening to Mr. Aguilar read from The Letters of Dashawn Lacore. The passages were as boring as ever, but nights of late it felt good just having a human voice to fill up the gathering darkness.
That night, in addition to Ma and Mary and the Aguilars, Caleb had come to listen as well. He sat across from Laura, staring at his boots. Whether he was getting more out of the prophet’s latest proverbs than she was, Laura couldn’t say.
When the reading was finished, they all continued to sit there around Mr. Aguilar’s lantern. It seemed that no one was ready quite yet to leave that tiny circle of light.
After a while, Ma began telling a story. Mary and Laura both looked to her in surprise. Ma was not ordinarily a storyteller. Unlike Pa, she disliked attention and tended to keep her thoughts to herself, especially in front of a group of people like this.
Storytelling did not come naturally to her. She began haltingly, telling things out of order and having to go back and start again. But everyone waited patiently as she groped to find the flow of her narrative. Even Caleb looked up, following attentively to Ma’s words as gradually her story fell into place.
THE STORY OF MA AND THE CAUDILLO IN THE KITCHEN
“When I was a little girl, I lived with my grandmother in a house in the north country near the ruins of Duluth.
“It felt enormous to me at the time. The house was two levels. It was made from sturdy brick. There were three or four sleeping rooms upstairs and a big open common room downstairs with a long dining table and a working fireplace.
“It sat all by itself, that house, but there was a minor convoy route that passed right by on its way to a trading port on Great Mishgan Lake. And so my grandmother ran a boarding house of sorts, providing the occasional traveler with a place to rest and a hot meal.
“In those days, a new caudillo had recently seized control of that part of the Wisconsin. El Osito the people called him. He was much feared. Folks spoke in whispers of the man’s ruthlessness and the brutality with which he treated all who opposed him. It was thanks to him, though, that the roads stayed open and some measure of law in those parts was observed. Whenever El Osito’s men came around, my grandmother always paid her taxes without complaint.
“She was a remarkable woman, my grandmother. She managed to feed and protect five children through the Hard Years, all on her own. Had a knack for squeezing sixteen ounces from a twelve ounce can, as she used to say. Whatever humble little I know about running a proper homestead, I got that from Nana Tucker. Resourceful, that’s the word. That’s how she kept her family together even after the old ghost cities fell apart.
“Sad to say, out of all her children, my mother was the only one to survive the Second Hyperflu. Must have been quite a blow, having already struggled through so much. She never let misfortune overwhelm her, though. Always pushing forward, with a mind for how to make it through the day and then the next, that was how she lived.
“One evening in early winter, Nana and I were alone in our little brick boarding house. Outside, a thick curtain of snow had begun to billow. The blizzard was unseasonable, for in those days the winters were a good deal warmer. We had a fire crackling in the big common room downstairs, and we sat beside it, her weaving a basket from cedar bark and me helping when I could, though truthfully I did little more than watch. Suddenly, there was a banging on the front door.
“Cut into the door, there was a square peephole with its own hinge. My grandmother swung it aside and lifted her candle up, trying to shed some illumination on whoever was outside. Standing on the porch were three men. They were dressed in furs, but they shivered nonetheless. Snow clung to their beards and dusted their caps. Nana Tucker did not recognize any of them and peppered the men with sharp questions.
“Eventually, one of them held up a pair of silver pieces, pinched between gloved thumb and forefinger, rubbing them in circles around one another with a metallic scrape. My grandmother squinted pointedly at each of the men one last time. Then she clacked her tongue and unlatched the door, telling the men that they must hang their guns up on the rack beside the door and remove their boots before entering.
“The men thanked her and unshouldered their rifles as they were told. As they squatted awkwardly in the doorway, wrestling with their boots, my grandmother remarked that her two sons were both already asleep upstairs. It was a lie I had heard her tell before. One of the men apologized for the late hour, explaining that the blizzard had caught them unprepared.
“My grandmother waved away his apology and said that she would fix them a warm supper if they were hungry. She took their wet coats and, in a single fluid gesture, directed them towards the fireplace, while driving me off into the kitchen to light the stove.
“I knew well enough that I was to keep my distance from guests, and when she joined me in the kitchen, Nana warned me anew not to talk to or linger near the strangers. I assumed at that point that she would send me upstairs, as she had in the past, perhaps to look after my imaginary uncles. Instead, with Nana Turner’s attention consumed by the task of improvising a supper, she sent me back into the common room with a pitcher of warmed cider and three cups.
“The men had shaken off the chill by then and were in good spirits. They greeted the arrival of the cider with delight. All three of them were clustered around one end of the common room’s long dining table. I set the pitcher and the cups down between them.
“The cups were antiques. Smooth and glossy and painted in the sorts of vibrant colors you only find in lectricmade porcelain. Unfortunately, they were hopelessly mismatched. One was decorated with a drawing of an orange cat, another with an intricate checkered pattern. The third was bright pink, covered all over in little white hearts, and it had letters across its face that spelled out the word ‘princess’ or some such if I recall correctly.
“Immediately, two of the men commenced a playful quarrel over who would take which cup. Before I could retreat, one of them turned to me to settle the dispute. Mindful of my Nana’s warnings and not knowing how to respond, I said nothing and dashed back to the kitchen, the men’s laughter filling the room behind me.
“I found my grandmother peeling carrots. Without looking up, she set me to work stirring a saucepan of gravy that sat simmering on the stove. On the counter nearby, I saw that a bundle of mincemeat had been brought in from the icehouse. Grease had stained the cloth wrapped around it a deep cherry red. Beside it waited a pie tin lined with barley dough. Nana Turner’s meat pies were famous, and my mouth watered, though I knew that this pie was not for me.
“After the pie crust was filled and baking inside the oven, my grandmother took the gravy spoon from me and told me to bring a few extra cords of wood inside for the fireplace. I was embarrassed to return to the common room but did as I was told.
“I returned from the woodpile with my boots caked in snow, hugging an assortment of split hardwood logs to my chest. I set down my load long enough to unlace my boots. From down the hall, I could hear the men’s boisterous voices. I kept my eyes down as I shuffled past them to the fireplace and stacked my firewood beside the hearth.
“The men seemed to pay me no mind. They were playing cards now. The pitcher of cider was empty, but they had a flask of doju that they passed back forth, splashing the liquor into their porcelain cups.
“The man seated at the head of the table, closest to the fire, was quieter than the other two, I noticed. While his fellows seated on either side of him bantered, he studied his cards and took small, thoughtful sips from his cup, the one with the orange cat. As I passed on my way back to the kitchen, I looked up momentarily and caught his eyes. There was something intense about those eyes. Cold and motionless, even as a flicker of reflected firelight danced within them. They made me feel afraid to look into them and afraid to look away at the same time. I can’t quite describe it.
“’Girl,’ he said.
“Immediately, the other two stopped talking, as if their comrade were about to make an important speech. Instead, the man just lifted the empty pitcher of cider. I nodded and took the pitcher from him. He rapped a knuckle on the table in thanks. The card game and the men’s banter then resumed, and I was invisible once more.
“When I told my grandmother that the men wanted more cider, she grumbled about how the barrel was nearly tapped but had me refill the pitcher right to the brim. Two silver pieces was a lot of money in those days, you understand. I could tell that my grandmother was making a special effort to accommodate the travelers.
“The man at the head of the table again rapped his knuckle on the table when I brought the cider in. The man next to him took the pitcher from me and deferentially filled up his companion’s cat cup before refreshing his own checkered cup.
“By then, the smell of Nana’s meat pie was wafting into the common room. How much longer would they have to sit there starving, the man at the head of the table demanded of me. His voice was not angry, but it was not amiable either. One of the other men chuckled nervously and began shuffling his cards. Avoiding their eyes, I muttered that supper would be out in a moment, though in truth I knew that it would be some time yet.
“Back in the kitchen, there was little left to do but wait for the pie’s crust to crisp and darken. Still, to my surprise, I was not sent upstairs. While my grandmother puttered about, returning occasionally to the stovetop to stir the gravy, I sat on a stool in the corner and returned to my basket weaving.
“Ten or twenty minutes passed. Suddenly, the door of the kitchen swung open, and one of the men burst in. It had been over an hour, he complained. They were hungry. Where was their supper?
“There were some rougher words sprinkled in there as well, I hate to say. The man had his pink princess cup in hand, and, as he spoke, a splash of amber liquid sloshed out onto Nana’s clean kitchen floor. Waving her gravy spoon at him in irritation, my grandmother told the man that supper would be ready when it was ready and to wait patiently in the common room.
“Still the man didn’t leave. Visibly drunk, he leaned against one of the counters and continued to talk. My grandmother did her best to ignore him and went about her business.
“A moment later, the kitchen door swung open again. It was the man who had been seated at the head of the table, the one towards whom the other two seemed so deferential. Seeing him standing there, I was struck by how much shorter he was than his companions. He was stocky, broad shouldered, with a thick muscular neck beneath his black beard. When he entered, the man with the pink cup straightened up and made an effort to appear more sober.
“The discussion about supper was repeated, to my grandmother’s rising irritation. Again, she urged them to return to the common room, but both men lingered. While the man with the pink cup resumed his effort to engage my grandmother in conversation, the shorter man began to wander about the kitchen. Those intense eyes of his inspected everything.
“As my grandmother was checking on the pie, the short man approached the stovetop. He peered with interest down at the simmering pool of gravy. Then he extended a meaty index finger and dipped it into the saucepan. Before he could lift his gravy-coated finger to his mouth, Nana was upon him. She gave the back of his hand such a slap as you’ve never heard in your life.
“The sound of that slap seem to echo off the walls of the kitchen. You could almost feel the sting in the resounding pop it made. The man with the pink cup abruptly stopped talking. His mouth fell open. The short man seemed no less surprised. He stared at the hand my grandmother had slapped, its finger still wet with gravy. His thick black eyebrows were arched in astonishment, but he said nothing. Slowly, he raised his intense gaze towards my grandmother.
“Nana met those piercing eyes without flinching.
“’Listen here, Mister,’ she told him. ‘This is my house, and there’s rules. Now you and your friends can either go back to the fireplace and wait patient like I told you or you can go back out in the snow. It’s nothing to me one way or the other.’
“The silence in the kitchen hung heavy. The man with the pink cup seemed to hold his breath as he watched for the short man’s reaction, as if the tiniest disturbance in his companion’s facial muscles might be the signal to fight or flee.
“The short man opened his mouth to say something, then abruptly thought the better of it. He shrugged, nodded to himself, and left the kitchen without another word. The man with the pink cup watched him go in surprise. Turning back to my grandmother, he gave the gravy one last look of longing.
“’Smells good,’ he said, before hurrying out the door in pursuit of his companion.
“Well, I really was sent upstairs after that. The sounds of carousing from the common room continued well into the evening before gradually fading, replaced by the howls of the blizzard outside.
“The next morning, I helped Nana prepare a road breakfast of barley biscuits. She handed each of the men their own knapsack and a jar of pumpkin jam to share between them.
“The men buttoned up their coats and filed out the door to retrieve their weapons from the rack on the porch. As he left, one of the men—it was the one who had ended up with the pink princess cup the night before, I believe—pressed a letter into Nana’s hand.
“’Thank you for your hospitality, Ma’am,” he said. ‘It was the finest fare we’ve had in some time. I don’t remember when I last saw Osito in such good spirits. If anyone ‘round these parts tries to make difficulties for you or your people, you show them this.’
“With that, they were gone. My grandmother gave the letter a cursory glance, grunted dismissively, then tucked it into her apron and went about tidying up the common room as if nothing remarkable had happened. I followed after her, mouth agape. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Had she known all this time that the gruff little man whose hand she had slapped was the notorious caudillo El Osito himself?
“Nana thrust a broom into my arms before answering.
“’No, I didn’t know,’ she said. ‘And all to the good. If I’d have known, maybe I mightn’t have acted as I did. I’d have been afraid. These caudillos, they’re used to folks being afraid. When he saw I wasn’t, I reckon he was just too surprised to be angry.’
“’Now, I don’t suggest you go around slapping warlords willy nilly, Caroline. It’s good to be afraid sometimes. Fear helps a body make sensible decisions. But sometimes you have to set aside your fear just so as you can move forward. Fear doesn’t change any of the dangers out there, just how you respond to them. When there’s a warlord in your kitchen, then there’s a warlord in your kitchen. There’s nothing that being afraid is going to do about it.’”