Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B
The tension in the air was palpable. My fear was that somebody was going to get just a little too nervous and pull a trigger. If that happened, I was pretty sure Grey Eagle wasn't going to be the only one getting shot.
"Everyone relax," I said calmly, "it's good to see that you've learned to keep your weapons handy, but there's no need for them here, so just go on and put them away."
"Let him up, Amanda," My voice seemed to come from someone else. I stood over the two on the ground, trying to put myself in as many lines of fire as I could. "It's okay, everyone. Grey Eagle was just testing a theory."
Slowly, by inches, they lowered their weapons, still not sure of the old man.
"Get up slowly, Grey Eagle. There are safer ways to prove a point, you know." I helped him to his feet as Amanda stood warily on guard.
"My apologies to the young lady," my mentor said, holding up both hands, palm outward. "I'll have to think of a way of proving the existence of a Puma that doesn't involve getting mauled by her. This is Amanda, to whom you introduced me in the mine?"
"The one and only," I grinned. "Had you asked, I could have told you that she is the one who teaches the rest of us to fight."
"Now you tell me," he gave me a forlorn look, "can you forgive me, young lady?"
The adrenalin finally leaving her, Amanda gave him one penetrating glare, then, with a flourish, reversed his hunting knife and sent it spinning through the air to stick, quivering, in the wood of the picnic table beside him. "You've got a strange way of winning friends and influencing people, old man, but yes, I forgive you. That doesn't mean I'll be turning my back on you anytime soon, though."
"The mountain lion does not trust easily," Grey Eagle said, making no move toward the knife. "This is the nature of things."
The old man turned to me, "Enormous forces are at work in the universe, Gavin. Most of them are centered on these mountains. I think I'll stick around. It ought to be a good show."
"I'll make you the same deal my father did. You teach these people how to hunt and to survive in the desert, and you are welcome to stay as long as you like."
"That is not all I will bring to your community. Tomorrow, John Hipa and the chief of the combined Southwest tribes will arrive here. They bring with them a number of white people who were gathered on the shores of Lake Mead. They also bring an offer of a treaty."
"What? How many people? What kind of treaty?"
"There are about twenty people. They thought to live in peace on the shores of the lake, and got pretty badly beaten up by some scavengers with guns. Some of the women were raped and most of their supplies stolen. They're on foot and some of them are in pretty bad shape. As for the treaty, that is for you to discuss with them."
"Okay, well, thanks for the warning, but I think it means you and I don't get to sleep yet. Amanda!" I beckoned my partner over, "Grey Eagle tells me that there are about twenty people headed our way. Some may need medical attention, and all will need shelter. I will ride out with Grey Eagle to meet them if you will get food and shelter organized, and alert Cora."
"Why ride out to meet them?"
"Two reasons: I want to do a pre-assessment and let them know what they're getting into if they come here, and I want to bring some food, water, and first-aid supplies for those who need them."
"And what about those who don't pass your pre-assessment, or don't want to come here?"
"I'll give 'em food and water and directions to Needles, then see that they don't follow us."
"How will you keep them from following?"
"They'll only have enough food and water to get them to their destination, without side trips. I'll also keep checking our back trail, just in case."
"Your call. Okay, I'll get Ruth started on food and water and have Cora make up a first aid kit."
"All right. I'll saddle up Humphrey and have Matt scare up a fresh horse for Grey Eagle, as well as one for supplies."
"Why don't you take the Hummvee?"
"All of the diesel fuel went out with the trucks, so I want to preserve what's in the Hummer's tank for emergencies."
Amanda nodded and headed back into the house as Grey Eagle and I started toward the stables. I had seen Matt and Heather gathered with the rest as Grey Eagle told his story, but they were already back at the stable by the time we got there.
Humphrey came eagerly at the sight of the bridle, happy for the opportunity to stretch his legs. Grey Eagle picked a fine young Appaloosa mare and swapped his saddle and bridle from the paint he had come in on. He started to curry the paint, but to my surprise, Heather stepped up, saying, "I'll do that, sir."
Grey Eagle gave her an appraising glance. "You know how to do it right?"
"I do now, sir, and Matt will keep an eye on me to make sure."
With an amused grin, Grey Eagle handed over the brush and went to help Matt prepare the pack saddle on the brown mare. I had expected to have to rig something for carrying supplies on a horse, but Archie had apparently found a use for pack saddles, because he had several, and most were in good repair.
While Matt and Grey Eagle worked on the pack, I stayed behind to talk to Heather.
"How are you doing Ms. Billingsley?" I asked.
"I'm okay, I guess," she said. "I mean, I see how I screwed up and everything, but, well, this is all I know how to do around here. None of the stuff I studied in school is any help, and I'm afraid I'm going to screw up again and get kicked out."
"Do you have any idea of how important what you're doing is?" I asked her.
"Huh?" she replied.
"In a few months or years, it's going to be harder and harder to get fuel for vehicles, unless we come up with a way to produce our own. Already, the horses are the best way to get around out here, and the more we depend on them, the more important they will become. Having you taking care of them means they stay healthy and rested and able to do what we require of them. You have one of the most important jobs in the community, even though it was given to you as a punishment."
"Wow," she said, "I never thought of it like that. I mean, I've actually gotten to like the horses. It's like each one of them has a different personality, but it never occurred to me that what I was doing was all that important."
"We're all going to have to rethink a lot of things as we adjust to this new world, Heather. You could do a lot worse than caring for the horses and where they live."
"Thanks, Mr. Thompson," she said, then as if she just thought of something else said, "Hey, you're not so bad, you know."
I grinned and headed toward the house.
Back at the house I ran up against another problem. Cora came out with a backpack bulging with supplies.
"I'm going with you," she stated.
"No, you're not. Stay here and get ready for these people."
"Do you know how to clean and suture a wound? Can you administer CPR?"
"Actually, the answer to both questions is yes. I may not be as skilled or as practiced as you, but I have done both. Now give me the pack and go get the rooms ready for the wounded."
With a glare that held more than irritation over being foiled in her desire to come along, Cora practically threw the pack at me and stomped back into the house. Crap! Time was short, and I didn't need this, but neither did I need my only medical professional mad at me.
I dismounted and followed Cora into the house. "Cora, wait! What's going on?"
"As if you didn't know!"
"I don't know, Cora. What's brought this on?"
"What's brought this on? Ask your Chinese bimbo! She'll do whatever you want! You don't need me!"
Oh, shit! I wanted to kick myself for my stupidity.
"Cora, listen. We need to discuss this when there's more time. I see why you're angry, but this is not the time to talk about it."
"Of course not! There's never time for me! Go on! Get the hell out of here!"
About that time, Amanda came in to see what the commotion was all about. "What's going on?"
"It's okay, Amanda," I told her, hoping to keep things from getting any worse. "It's something Cora and I need to work out between us."
"No it's not okay!" Cora shouted at both of us before turning on Amanda. "You've ruined everything!"
"I see," she said. "You were the first to sleep with him after the sickness, and now he doesn't make any time for you, is that about right?"
Cora was silent, not wanting to open a dialogue with the woman she was seeing as her rival. The distraught Filipina and I were both shocked when Amanda continued.
"Well, that's pretty cruel of him, isn't it? How thoughtless could he be?"
Cora stood with her mouth open, and I must have mirrored her expression as Amanda continued.
"I mean, he's got nothing to do but teach all these people how to survive, figure out what we need to do to keep from sliding into barbarism, try to collect and preserve as much of the knowledge of the human race as possible to shorten the recovery as much as possible, and then it's just a matter of providing for our food, shelter, and defense! The absolute bastard! How could he put those things ahead of you? Hell, I've practically been throwing myself at him, and he still hasn't found any more time to be with me. How the hell is he even supposed to know you still want him? You sit up here in the house, quiet as a mouse, and wait until the worst possible time to throw a tantrum like a little child, and then you expect him to drop everything and attend to your needs?"
This wasn't quite the tack I would have taken in trying to defuse the situation, but it was done, now, and like it or not, I was along for the ride. I mentally crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
Cora, meanwhile, still stood in open-mouthed shock, which finally ended as she broke down sobbing. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I just ... Oh my God! It has been so lonely!"
Amanda gathered her in her arms and turned to me. "Go on. She'll be all right now. I'll take it from here."
"Are you sure? I hate to foist this off on you, but I want to catch up with those people before they get too close."
"Yeah, I've got it. Come on Cora; let's go to your room."
I had to take Amanda's word for it. Grey Eagle and I rode in silence as we descended the trail down the mountain and headed northeast. We kept the horses at a ground-eating lope, pausing now and then to give them a breather and some water and to check the load on the pack saddle. Just as the sun was beginning to redden the eastern horizon, we saw the smoke of a campfire near the junction of US-40 and US-95. Pausing some distance away, I studied the camp in the light of the nearly full moon.
"Didn't you tell me that the Mohave were guiding these people?"
"Yes. They are the ones who told me of the group."
"Have the Mohave been so long away from the land that they don't even post sentries when they camp?"
"The People have all been long away from the land, but most have kept their traditions to some extent. I cannot say what is true for the Mohave."
"Hmm. Still, something doesn't seem right. I know John Hipa has kept some desert sense, and if these people were attacked once, you would think they would be a bit more cautious. Just for fun, let us circle around and approach from the east."
Grey Eagle gave me an approving smile and kicked his horse into a trot, heading down a wash to stay out of sight of the camp. We tried to stay to low ground and keep hills between us and the camp. It added a couple of miles to our journey, but if something was wrong in that camp, it almost certainly meant trouble, and this would give us two advantages: First, it should mask the direction from which we had traveled, making it more difficult to pick up our back trail, in case there were bad guys in the camp and they got the drop on us. Secondly it should put us at the camp just as the sun came up over the eastern hills - behind us.