Episode Thirty-three ♦ Well Water

“I don’t know,” Anita said. She moved sodden bags around in the handcart. “Just don’t think it’s a very good idea.”

“Why not?” he said suspiring. “We need the rest. A day or two. We can spread stuff out to dry. Road’s empty. Spot’s nice.”

She looked around the small clearing; some sad, stunted trees grew along the banks of the gully. Shaking her head she said, “It’s just not a good idea. No water.”

“Barrel’s full.” Her reticence was maddening.

“But we’ve no idea where we’ll get more.”

“Cut my ration.”

“That’s foolish and you know it. If you stop sweating, it’s heatstroke. You could die.”

He stood, stalled picking up the crossbar. Once he bent over, she got behind the cart and used her bodyweight to push it down, coercing him to move.

♦ ♦ ♦

She was different since they talked at the fork. George was relieved to speak of anything other than the ferry crossing, though he could not drive that memory from his mind. Time. It was the healer. He hoped time would remove the filth of the vicious deed.

He looked down the road, straining with the handcart, wondering why he felt no stronger after two weeks of putting one tired, sore foot forward and leaning into the crossbar. The first time Anita pushed, he warned her off – because of the baby – but she would not listen to him. She stopped nagging about the ferry, he returned the favor. Her effort helped.

Eyes scanning the horizon, he lived in hope that something would announce a water hole: a small settlement, a bunch of trees, a big sign saying “WATER” with an arrow pointing down. There had only been false hopes the last four days, stream crossings, now nearly dry, with warning signs. The water barrel was low enough they tilted it to get water to the tap.

Something grew along the horizon, to the left of the road. But unlike bands of trees that announced a creek bed, this was a clump. Yes. His confidence grew, thinking about water, trudging across the empty landscape.

He slowed and said, “Stop.”

Her voice, from behind the handcart, weak, tired. “What’s up?”

The thought lodged in his dry throat. He stood holding the crossbar, sweating.

Anita joined him. Neither spoke. He pointed about an hour down the road.

♦ ♦ ♦

The hamlet, surrounded by trees and fields and a few minutes south of the road, consisted of a dozen buildings, less than half inhabited by humans. In the center was a large metal tank held three meters in the air on metal stilts. A crooked-neck pipe emerged from the bottom of the tank over an area staked off by forearm-thick logs a bit taller than George. On the other side stood a giant metal flower supported by a pyramid of four very long pieces of metal. He set down the crossbar and pointed up at the motionless phlox-like object. “What’s that?”

Anita raised her right eyebrow. “The windmill? Haven’t you ever seen one?”

“No. Not like this.”

“Hello. Welcome to Owensville. I’m Lars Owen.”

George looked to the man who walked up from the side. Lars had a full head of sun-bleached hair but looked old, that is, until George looked into Lars’ bright, aqua eyes. His leathery skin misled – looking like that of a bird cooked too close to the flame – suggesting he was older than his spryness indicated. “Will you be resting from your travels?”

“If you’ve got clean water,” George answered.

“Freshest well water in these parts.”

Anita pointed at the black hill to their north. “Why isn’t well water affected by that?”

“Midden Mountain?” Lars glanced at it. “Our well is very deep.”

George scratched his head. “Midden? As in garbage heap?”

Lars shrugged.

George looked from the mound to the tank. Chickens pecked at the earth.

“By the way, I’m Anita and this is my husband George.”

“Nice to meet you. If I may ask – and it doesn’t look like much from what I see on your handcart – what do you have to trade?”

Anita replied, “Beads.”

“Gold or glass?”

“Both,” she said.

“We prefer gold. Size?”

George fished one out of his pocket and held it between thumb and forefinger.

“Ten beads a night for the both of you.”

Anita gasped then covered her mouth with her hand. “Sorry. Fly or something.”

“That includes a private sleeping porch with bed, big dinner and breakfast, water for your barrel as well as however much you care to drink while here. Oh, and that stockade-looking thing is our shower. Water is not city hot, but the sun does a good enough job. No one complains about it in summer.”

She said, “We’ll take it.”

“Good. It’s fried chicken night.”

George smiled at the plump birds scratching in the dirt around the stockade.

♦ ♦ ♦

Anita hung and set their possessions around the porch to dry in the warm afternoon air. George strode back from the shower holding the now oversized airball shorts up with his hand. She worried at the weight he’d lost the last couple weeks. Her high-waisted dress did little to conceal her pregnancy, but she forced away the thought that she wasn’t gaining enough to support the baby.

“How was it?” she asked.

“Wonderful!” he replied running his fingers through his shaggy, damp hair.

“If I can borrow some shears, would you like a haircut?”

“Love one.”

“I’ll ask at dinner.” She looked out of the porch so he would only see her hair. “I’m thinking about trying the chicken tonight,” she said, hoping he missed it.

“Bet it’ll be good. I’d eat fried squirrel. If that’s what they served.”

“Exactly.”

“Do they have something you can eat? Eggs? cheese?”

No need to hope; he was listening. Sort of. “I’ve been thinking, since we had to leave the cheese in the boat, I’m not getting enough protein for the baby.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“What could I say? It was covered in blood.” She stared at an apple tree; under it a couple horses munched on fallen fruit. “I thought we’d be able to trade for some along the way.”

“Maybe we can.”

“Yeah. Maybe. But until then, think I’ll try a little meat.” She turned to him. “Just didn’t want you to be surprised or make a big deal of it. Okay.”

His brow furrowed. “Okay? You think that’s wise?” He could be so annoying.

“Don’t know what else to do.”

“What if it makes you sick? Ever eat meat?”

“Never.” She shook her head and looked at the contented horses.

♦ ♦ ♦

“Thank you for the use of the clippers,” Anita said handing them to a Mrs. Owen. The woman nodded.

George had forgotten the names of thirty-odd members of the clan, four generations calling Owensville home. He ran his fingers across the scalp stubble; it felt like a two-day-old beard. He wished he hadn’t lost his hat – he had no idea where – since the kerchief Anita tore from an unstained part of her bloodied green and ivory dress felt a bit too feminine for him to wear, but the sun would soon be high above. Unrelenting.

They joined the Owen family at the long table behind the cookhouse for eggs, bacon, biscuits, potatoes, and green tomatoes – everything but the biscuits fried. Serving bowls passed from hand to hand, but before anyone lifted a fork to eat, the oldest gentleman stood at the end of the table. “We are thankful to the earth for providing us this bounty, to those who harvested it, and to the cooks who prepared it. Enjoy.”

Taking the cue, everyone said, “Thanks. Enjoy!”

George watched Anita break off a tiny piece of bacon and put it in her mouth. She grimaced, and, unlike the speck of chicken breast she ate the night before, spit it out. He nodded then crumpled up a strip of bacon over his scrambled eggs before mixing them together with his fork. She shook her head.

Once the eating slowed – and as agreed – George asked, “Ever heard of Red Cloud? A town. Not far from here.”

The Owens looked around the table before the oldest gentleman said, “No son, don’t believe I ever have, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there.”

“Do you have a map?”

“No. No need for maps. We know what’s up and down the road,” the balding, gray-haired man replied. “Your best bet is to head for Concordia. Main trading town in this part of the world. Ask the Confederated Express agent. If your town exists, they’ll know of it. Concordia’s about ten days from here, though I’m guessing, since you’re traveling with that handcart.”

“Thanks. We just take the road west?”

“No. In about two days you’ll cross a bridge. Water’s safe, just a bit too swift some seasons. Next day you take the left fork to the southwest. Keep heading west. Third crossroad you turn left. Concordia’s just south of the river. Largest river you’ve seen since the Missouri.”

“Thank you.” George smiled.

“Mind if I ask something?” Anita looked at the old man a couple seats away.

He smiled. “Please. Ask.”

“We bought water from a woman before crossing the poisoned streams.”

“Yes. That’d be my sister Lilith,” said a gray-haired woman, not old enough to be clan matriarch. “She keeps up the signs.”

“Is she on her own?”

“Not unless the men are away hunting or trading.”

“She greeted us alone.”

“That’s her usual way.”

“If the men were away, what stops someone from harming her? Stealing the key? Seems that well is pretty valuable.”

“It is,” a younger man joined the exchange. “But no one’s foolish enough to try. First off they’d fight.”

“Then word spreads,” the woman next to him said.

“We’d ride over as soon as we heard about it,” another man said. “It’d be bloody business.”

The old man at the end of the table nodded – in agreement or approval, it was unclear. “But mostly, it’s not the way things are done out here. Every person is important in this land, but one who steals will be shunned. Everyone has a part to play. We all work hard to survive and together we thrive.”

“Well put Dad.”

“Exactly Grampa.”

The family started clearing the table. Lars approached George and Anita. “Would you like to rest another night? Or can we fix you something to eat along the road?”

Anita replied, “As much as we would like to stay, we better head for Concordia. Another ten days on the road...”

George wondered at her incomplete thought; maybe the road wore her down too. Then he remembered the cost and their limited supply of beads.

Lars said, “Very well, I’ll bring something round in a bit.”

“No rush,” George said. “We haven’t packed yet.”

George leaned towards Anita and said, “I tried refusing, but Clearie insisted on returning a string of beads. We’ll need them.”

“You’re kidding!”

“What? You too?”

She nodded and smiled.

Lars returned. “Remember, if no one greets you when you cross the Concordia Bridge, check your shotgun with the Urp before entering town. No one carries weapons into Concordia.”

♦ ♦ ♦