I made it to the top of the stairs again. The cardiologist diagnosed me as having a severe atrial arrhythmia which, as far as I could tell, meant that my blood didn't circulate efficiently to my lungs and back. That and weighing three hundred pounds made my future existence pretty bleak. Still, I soldiered on, not having any alternative.
I was still huffing and puffing, making my way down the hall to my office door. I was fumbling my keys much worse than normal. I felt like somebody hit me in the shoulder with a Louisville Slugger. I went to my knees, then my face. I didn't have the energy but to feebly raise my hands to my belly before it all went away.
I opened my eyes and said to myself, "That was a fast onset. I thought heart attacks were protracted while aneurysms and strokes were fast.
I heard a noise like someone clearing their throat. I opened my eyes and turned my head. Now there was a fellow I didn't want to meet in a dark alley, or a dark anywhere! Well over seven feet tall, built like a pro wrestler, bald, slightly green complected with brown patches and, if I wasn't mistaken, he was covered with tiny scales. Something was wrong. I wasn't scared shitless. I asked, "Chlorophyll adaptation?"
He smiled. "I've not heard that as a first question before. No, swamp adaptation. I'll give you a present if you can demonstrate a brachiating adaptation."
I manipulated the tissue ridge over my inside lower finger joints. "Flesh pad here, plus callus ridge orientation on the fingertip pads."
He nodded. "Good. The rotation pattern of the shoulder joints are another clue. I will give you one hour to collect all you can hold in your hands before you are transshipped to another planet."
I squirmed up my face. "Don't tell me you poor bastards have sociologists, too?"
He looked as if he'd been beaten with a stick. "Afraid so. Afraid so. My gift will be integrated into your rejuvenation. We can't have you kicking off from a bad heart the first week. Everyone in the project gets healthy before they get dropped. Your time starts now."
A big countdown timer appeared on the wall while he just went "poof". I didn't have time to wonder about how he did it. I ran outside with my keys in hand looking for my truck. I had some heavy camping gear stashed there in a storage box. Things like oilskins, a two-pound hammer, a diamond-point shovel and a bag of quarter-inch sisal rope were in the back as well. There was also a fresh bag of contractor's trash bags and some miscellaneous fire-pit tools behind the seat. No doubt that they didn't do my gas mileage any good, but I had a cardboard box with a duct-taped bottom containing one foot long forged steel tent pegs. If I could carry the damned things they were coming along. In the foot well of the passenger seat were my long, fancy tent pegs for boggy sites and my squirrel fork. I hacked it all back to the apartment and snatched up my backpack.
I figured that I could hold up two hundred and fifty pounds for a short period, using a strap around my neck to help hold up my hands. I proceeded to stuff that big Kelty external frame pack with everything that came to sight, including pants, boots, a shirt and three wool blankets. I kept a revolver in its factory original blue plastic box in a locked closet as well as a .45 derringer with its bag of bullets and .410 slug shells. I had recently bought a very nice cutlass and sheath that I might finally get some use out of. I had bought a 24" rope saw in a can that I thought was cool, but would probably never use. It looked like the chain part of a chainsaw.
My heaviest camp knife was thrown in, then I pulled a big flour sack out of the pack to fill with three five-pound bags of flour and a five pound bag of salt. I had bought a few little bottles of olive oil with an eye towards camping. Those went in, along with a quart plastic bottle of corn oil and two more five-pound bags of salt. I also stashed a can of baking powder along with several jars of peanut butter and jelly. I'd just bought a five pound bag of white potatoes and a three pound bag of sweet potatoes. I hung them from the pack by S-hooks. The fridge had a quarter of a boneless ham in it that I'd been making sandwiches out of. There was a sliced half-ham in the freezer. I triple-bagged both of them with all my available ice cubes and stuffed them in the pack as well.
I still had twenty minutes. I spotted a bag of carrots and a three-pound plastic tub of lard in the fridge and five pounds of corn meal. That reminded me to grab my pepper flakes and powdered hot pepper. The celery seed and whole peppercorns were right next to it which I also snatched. The pack was past full. I had a day pack that I'd thrown in the corner which I proceeded to stuff. I carefully looked around my over full apartment. Beeswax candles. lamp oil. A big ball of cotton string. Paracord. Hatchets. Flint and steel. Lighters, A jar of sulfur. Soap. Lots of soap. over-the-shoulder M3 medical bag. A fresh bottle of Gorilla Glue. A big fat spool of artificial sinew. Spare baggies, stuff 'em in anywhere they'd fit. My big LED-converted aluminum club of a Kel-light. All the batteries in AA and D size that I had. A little sewing kit. Compass. Esbit fire starter cubes. An open-bottomed tent. Camo tarp. a fine mesh screen inner tent designed to frustrate bugs. More wool blankets.
I opened up my tool kit. Wood chisels. A cold chisel. A small hand full of metal files. Pliers, several pair--Needle nose. Sliding jaw. Vice-grips. S-hooks. A box of long reproduction rose-head nails had to come in handy sometime. canvas buckets. A two quart cast iron cooking pot with a lid, on feet. A six-inch cast iron fry pan. I said to myself, "What the hell" and latched onto my ten inch aluminum Dutch oven too. My little gridiron. Spare socks and underwear. I had an oilskin waterproof poncho somewhere. Where was the damned thing?
I wrapped everything in the tarps and hefted it in my arms just as the timer clicked over to zero. Pow! I staggered dizzily as I found myself on a perfectly flat white surface half the size of a football field.
"All right, let's see what you've got."
I started laying everything out on the tarps. He asked, "Why the big garbage bags?"
"If I split a couple at the seams they should make a great waterproof roof when held down by cord or lashings and withes. Windproof layer for winter, too. When I get around to weaving baskets they'll make great waterproof liners."
"Whups. No firearms. Sorry."
"Drag. What about throwing spears?"
"I've got a thrower upstairs in the closet, and a dozen cast steel points. Add the Gorilla glue and fake sinew I've got in the pack, and I'm set with what I can find for the wands near almost any swamp."
"Go. You've got five minutes to grab what you can."
Pow! What a shock to the system. I was upstairs in the apartment. I snatched a couple early American hunting shirts, a big wool over shirt, my atl-atl thrower and the contents of my projects drawer, which coincidentally held those points. I remembered that I had a pair of real ugly sheepskin leggings and a wool breechclout in a box. I spotted a three-gallon blue speckle-ware water boiler that I'd stashed in the closet. Lastly I grabbed a pair of pigskin gloves, an eight pound can of pennies, a full bag of big copper rivets along with their ring-set and a palm-sized punch. More AA batteries. I needed to deform those pennies into little cups for the rear of my atl-atl flights. I figured that I'd never be seeing that room again. I spotted a 2-quart canteen in a bag. Then I looked over my little tool kit. I snatched a tee-grip hand drill and all the quarter-inch bits I could quickly find. The few half-inchers were snatched up, too. I put the bails for a big steel bucket and a smaller brass pail over my arm. I was looking around for more loot and was moving towards my presentation knife box when everything went Pow! and I was back near the rest of my stuff. I saw his eyes open wide at my arms full. I innocently said, "You DID say to grab what I could."
His smile was a trifle forced. "My bad. Let's see what you picked up this time. He nodded. "Well chosen. you won't starve from not being able to hunt and you have everything you need to build an indecently good shelter. The cold chisel and files were actually a very good choice. There is workable stone where you are going.
Now, these are the rules. Pay very close attention. Everyone that gets transported is given a seven day grace period to familiarize themselves with the area. Nobody but you can get into or out of your sanctuary, but you can pass through both ways freely along with anyone you are touching. The natives are hostile. Think middle ages brigands or a pirate town. It is truly a lawless environment. Think the worst and it probably happens in the towns, daily. This is a very long running experiment and all the staff involved are too cowed to change anything. There's bows out there and crossbows so be careful. There's very little organization. Think gangs and bosses."
Poof! A big high-walled, farm-sized wheelbarrow appeared. "Stuff your things into that or you'd never be able to move it all. I saw a long hatchet in your gear and a limb saw. You'll need them to make a path for the barrow, but you'll have to hide your traces too. Take a deep breath, now--
The first thing I noticed was the rotting corpse laying there with an arrow through the chest. What a wake-up call. I guessed that meant that even though people couldn't enter the sanctuary, their arrows could. I carefully scanned the undergrowth outside the obvious periphery for motion, then I moved my barrow to the covered well at the center of the clearing. I needed some sort of wall to sleep and relax behind. I belted on my cutlass, picked out a ten-foot rope and dug out my ten-inch folding limb saw that I had found in a deer-hunter's catalog. I quietly cursed myself for not buying spare blades for it, as they were relatively cheap at the time.
I shinnied up one of the few trees in the clearing to get a look around. Why was it so easy? I had arms and legs like a gorilla, that's why! Also, I stood six-foot-eleven tall! Some gift! I saw evidence of a village off to the west. First I saw the smoke then I made out the regular street pattern. After my bare-bones warning I certainly wasn't going that way. I saw a few smoke trails here and there, and noticed what seemed to be a random series of trails crisscrossing the woods. I spotted a swamp off to the south and a stream at its western edge. This changed my immediate plans. I had all the cord I needed to weave a fishing net, and more. The swamp would also provide reeds to weave and hopefully something like diamond willow from which I could fashion my flights. I had a little steel wire cable leader material to fashion snares.
I had to water the bushes. I thanked God that I didn't reel out a fire hose to do the job. The women would all run for the hills at their first glimpse. I was "normal" sized down there.
Hopefully I'd find a place separated a bit from the swamp by a hill or a bluff. That would hopefully keep the predatory biting insects away from my camp, and if there was a cliff face I might find a small cave, flint nodules or rock suitable for building.
I carefully noted the paths that intersected and seemed to lead to near the swamp. It was then that I realized that their 'sanctuary' was a trap. It was a well-known place for the predators to come for fresh, unwary prey. Well, I damned well wasn't going to be prey for anyone without giving them one hell of a fight.
I planned to fill up my pots and water jugs from the well and leave at first light. I had cold ham and water for supper. I then wrapped up in a tarp and blanket for the night.
First light came early. The birds woke me before dawn. I oriented on the tree I'd climbed, then cut three small trees as close to flush with the ground as I could. After I rolled the barrow over the stumps I broke up the wheel tracks, smeared dirt over the stumps and stood the severed trees up, close to where they'd grown. It was the best I could do to hide my trail. The big fat rubber tire aided me in moving somewhat quietly. I broke every hour or so to drink some water and climb a tree to check my route. I only had to backtrack twice. Those paths were a real maze. After leaving the sanctuary any trees that I had to cut down I also limbed and dragged behind the barrow for later use. No sense in wasting effort. I also dragged three un-topped trees behind me to break up my trail.
I heard the swamp long before I spotted it. I'd traveled most of the day to get there. The peepers and bullfrogs gave it away. I didn't approach too closely, but rather piled brush over the barrow and reconnoitered first. It appeared that the land features were formed by an upthrust and decline which shaped the bed of a north-west to south-east swamp. There was an exposed cliff face nearly a half mile to the south-east made up of limestone with various colors in different bands. This looked promising. The face was miles long and was a classic environment to find a cave. It faced away from the swamp. I found a nice little campsite next to the cliff which featured a cold spring surrounded by a multi-colored sand pool.
The surface of the cliff was rough and sported many cracks and 'splits. I built a small fire from dry wood against the cliff so that the smoke would be broken up and the fire's warmth would reflect back onto me. I used the green tree trunks that I'd salvaged to make a reflector to sleep before. I would sleep warm and protected from a spear or arrow in the back. It was ham again for dinner. I had to finish it before it turned rancid. The ice cubes that I'd packed with the frozen meat were melted but they'd done their job. I planned to slice the ham steaks thin and dry them in the morning. I was miles away from where I'd be expected to show up and in a difficult environment.
I woke up with a sore back. It was past time to harvest reeds to weave mats. The process was an easy, almost mindless thing to do once I had the supplies. Lord, but I'd demonstrated crap like that for years back in the day. I started some meat smoking and headed out to find a likely reed bed. If it was a swamp then it had a reed bed. It was axiomatic. I kept a good eye out for long, tough saplings the size of my finger too.
I certainly didn't find what I expected. An injured lizard man lay half-in and half-out of the water with an infected shoulder the size of a cantaloupe. Somehow I knew that he was young. The kid was in a bad way. I lashed together some reeds to form a drag and hauled his ass back to my camp. He was out of it. The broken butt-end of an arrow stuck out of his shoulder. It looked like it was in a bad place. If he'd been human then the point would be stuck in the joint. I laid him out and prepped the area with iodine surgical wash, then dosed my hands and my scalpel. I pried apart the wound with one hand while I gently slit open the flesh with the other. The suppurate stank like hell and ran white-green-yellow. I kept washing the site clean with a fifty percent solution of surgical prep and spring water using a lavage syringe. Soon my blade grated on metal. I'd found the arrow head.
I did the best I could to clean a pair of needle-nosed pliers in my iodine-bromine surgical prep, then with one knee between his shoulders, I grabbed that sucker with the pliers and pulled for England. I ended up flat on my back waving a really nasty half-arrow in the air. I scrambled up and discarded the damned thing. Then I squirted a big dose of surgical prep deep into the wound, worked it around with both hands and squeezed hard on both sides like popping a pimple. The crap gushed out of him like there was no tomorrow. If that didn't do the trick then nothing would. I deep-flushed the wound twice more before sewing him up...
I covered him up and kept pumping cold water into him. When he got the shakes I set him in front of the fire. I did all the nasty little nurse things that I had to.
I'd set out some snares on what looked like critter runs and managed to harvest several little beasties that looked a lot like short-eared rabbits with nasty sharp curved claws. And really obnoxious teeth. Nasty, long, sharp, pointed teeth. I didn't know if they could jump like they had built-in pogo sticks ala Monty Python, but they sure had the rear legs for it. They made a fine stew with carrots, wild onions and potatoes. On the third morning my guest woke up and, with my help, tottered off into the bushes to take care of business. After he got himself around four bowls of stew he looked a lot better. His color looked better, if you can say a guy with green skin had color. The swelling on his shoulder was way down and he seemed to be using the arm without much stress. Doctor, the operation was successful AND the patient lived.
After harvesting a few bunnies in the morning I tried to communicate with my patient. He goggled when he saw what I'd brought in from my trap line. Apparently they were nasty little bastards to hunt and the casual way that I handled them brought me no little respect. I patted my chest and said, "Tom". He patted his chest and made a noise like a geothermal mud pot exploding. I shook my head, patted his chest and said, "Boris". I'd never seen a lizard man smile before. He nodded, patted his chest and said quite distinctly, "Boris". This was going too well. I slowly said, "Do you understand me?"
He shrugged. "Some. Enough."
I smiled. "Good"! I motioned slicing and peeling, then using the pliers to pull out the deeply imbedded arrowhead, then working the wound and squeezing the hell out of it until it went, "Bleahh" with an explosive motion of my hands. Then I held my nose and washed in the spring. He nodded and smiled. He said, "My Thanks" when I laid that nasty half arrow in his hand.
"Where you from?"
He motioned far to the east with several waves.
I said, You are here now. Get stronger. Get your wind so you can run. Stay here for now. He smiled and clasped both my wrists with his hands. I reciprocated.
Before long he was hunting in the swamp. The guy healed fast. He watched carefully as first I made reed mats, then wove a fishing net. He learned how to weave his own. Next we made him throwing spears and a thrower. We found a reasonable equivalent to tough diamond willow suckers that did the job. Our diet improved radically after he brought in small red deer which hid in the swamp and were devilishly hard to sneak up on. The first time he trapped a fang-rabbit he preened and strutted like a cockerel. Boy, was he proud!
Boris watched me examine the entire cliff face, foot by foot until he couldn't take it anymore. "What you seek? It makes me crazy!"
"Hole in the rock big enough to live in."
He shook his head. "Very rare, hard to find."
"Not so hard if you know a secret. The water springs eat away at the rock over many, many MANY years on their way to the swamp or other waters. Limestone like this", I patted the cliff-side, "are what caves are formed in."
He was a bright kid. "So caves can be small at front and big at back, or any other shape."
I nodded furiously. Yes! Very much so. I tap with a hammer to find weak places where I might dig into the stone. Sometimes luck is good. Often luck sucks."
I mimicked kicking someone in the nuts then bent over holding my groin with a groan. He laughed like hell. "Yes! Often luck sucks! No joke!"
I tanned up a little pouch of fang-rabbit fur and a neck cord. Within I placed a sharp flint chip and a fire steel. That was my gift to him when he took his first deer. Not every piece of steel can be used for firestarting. It has to have a high carbon content and be properly tempered, so that the sharp edge of the flint can strike off a glowing shred of metal that's hot enough to make your tinder catch fire. The lizard people hadn't learned enough metallurgy to get there yet. They used another technique--bashing two pieces of fools' gold together to make a much colder spark and capturing that. It was a much harder technique but still easier than using a fire plow or a fire drill.
I found my cave! It wasn't that big, maybe twelve feet wide at the back by eighteen deep, but I had a good defensible place to live. Boris was amazed that my theory had born fruit. My success so enchanted him that he continued looking. He found another, then another. My first cave was relegated to being the smoke house! The second cave became the fuel bunker. The third and largest became my home.
My britches had about had it by that time. Denims just aren't cut out for that kind of life. Boris knew much more about tanning hides than I did. He was pleased to find something to teach me. Before long I had deerskin pants, as did Boris. He thought that pockets were the shits.
Boris was a master of the swamp. I asked him if he had found any gray or white clay. He nodded and brought back my Dutch oven filled with good, creamy white clay. He watched carefully as I tore off a section and formed it into a little clay lamp with a flat bottom and a flat lip to hold the wick. I made a good half dozen of them, then while the lamps sat and dried to a leathery stage, I dug a pit, fired it to get the moisture out, put the lamps inside and fired it again, this time with a pit full of fire and a lid of split logs, dirt and sod. I was careful to leave two small holes in the top the size of my thumb. When the cover felt cool to my hand I dug everything up. I had five black-glazed lamps and one broken failure. Not bad! I'd seen batches fired like that with only one survivor.
I asked him to please try to find salt. He found a salt lick by watching the animal trails. It was very dirty, but it was salt and we needed it to preserve our meat. He brought back skin bag after skin bag of the salty dirt. I showed him how to purify it. I put my biggest pot filled half full of water over a slow fire and dumped in a full bag of the salty dirt. When it was steaming hot, just roiling a little, I scooped out the dirt that had settled to the bottom and saved it for later processing. I added a second bag of dirt and stirred, then a third. I tasted the brine and found it quite strong. The pot was taken off the fire and allowed to cool. Salt crystals formed on the sides of the pot which were harvested and dried. It was a long, tedious process but we harvested just under twenty pounds of clean gray salt a week. After a couple months we thought that we had enough for a year. All the reserved dirt was re-processed in another two batches. The last, third batch was done by scooping out the now depleted dirt and boiling the brine dry, then collecting the last few crystals that formed. I told Boris of how it was done in Arabia and Africa, where evaporating pans were dug out of the stone at the sea shores and seawater added until crystals formed by evaporation, which were collected and further dried.
He was getting ready to leave. I could tell by the way he carried himself. I prepped my little day pack for him, along with my short hatchet, a bad civil war reproduction corn boiler made out of stainless steel, a greased bag of salt, a plastic screw-top canteen, enough canvas to wrap up in, some snare wire, fifty feet of rope and the bulk of our dried meat. He was without words, but I knew he was touched. I had given him things that were irreplaceable and he knew it. He obviously didn't want a big thing made of his leaving. I woke one morning to find him gone.
I made doors that looked like a part of the limestone walls beside them. I split off irregular stone facings from inside the caves and put some of those nails to good use to lock them in place. From ten feet away the only thing that gave the deal away were the footprints. I resolved that problem by mounting the doors back a little, leaving four by eight foot indentations in the cliff face that would have made someone a dandy short term or overnight camp. I had handles attached to the insides of the doors to pick them up, and bored a little spy hole in each one so that I wouldn't open the door to a nasty surprise. To get inside when the door was shut or to shut it when leaving required a big screwdriver or tent stake that would fit into the spy hole to lift the whole thing up and set it to one side or into the vertical slots I'd prepared.
I had no idea what the season was, but I thought it was fall. I gathered all the food I could and did my best to fill that smoke house. As I said, the middle-sized cave became my wood bunker. There was no draft in the smallest or middle-sized caves. The largest one which became my home did have a draft which meant I could build and use an indoor firepit without smoking myself out.
I'd never learned to weave baskets but it was a profoundly useful technology. I learned the best I could. It made gathering and storing my vegetables much easier.
Before they went bad I planted the last of my red potatoes, sweet potatoes and carrots. They were wrinkly but sound. I found a strip of land bordering the swamp that looked to be good, black soil and seemed to have reliable drainage. I hunted down wild garlic and wild onions to transplant there as well. Any time I found a plant that appeared to be edible I tried it out. If it didn't turn me inside-out then I planted rows of it in the garden. Some, like the greens, were like poke and had to be boiled before they were edible. I was surprised to find either oak trees or a damned fine equivalent. I collected the mast, lightly crushed the nuts into quarters to remove the shells, put them into a cloth sack and put them in the stream to leach. After a thorough drying and crushing they made a good rough meal for porridge. Their harvest became a yearly ritual.
The fish had no fear of the net. I was able to harvest a lot. I cleaned them, dipped them in a strong brine, strung them on lines and hug them, bones and all, in the smokehouse to dry and toughen. Before frying fish I dredged them in crushed, leached and dried acorn meat.
I found freshwater mussels, some as big as my palm. If they were edible then I wasn't going to let another protein source go to waste. They weren't bad, but pretty chewy. I'd have to cook them to rags with some strong seasoning before they'd be a favorite. Now, if I had some wine and rice I could make a paella with all that fish...
After the harvest and just before the rains I sewed up several shoulder bags out of canvas and went exploring. I was looking for a grass something like wheat. Looking from the top of the cliff gave me an idea of where to go. The color of ripe grain is pretty characteristic.
I owned those big square tent stakes, pliers and a hammer. If I could fumble together a bellows and find something to use as an anvil then I might be able to rough up a sickle or even a scythe. If I had the skill and material I'd fashion a billhook, otherwise known as a fascine knife.
Yes, I found grain. It was mixed and looked like barley, wheat and oats. I didn't want to risk breaking loose the germ from rough handling so I cut the heads free and bagged them up. I planned on spreading them on a canvas to fully dry before putting them back into a dry storage bag and hanging them from a nail. I didn't want any foraging wee little beasties to get into them.
The mice had invaded my cave. The place smelled like mouse piss and the little shits were everywhere. I remembered seeing an article on how Alaskan miners caught their little camp robbers. They filled a bucket half full of water, propped up a flat stick for them to climb to the top, put a hole through the center of a soda bottle--top and bottom, then poked a dowel through it to freely rotate about the axle. It was baited with peanut butter around the middle of the bottle and left alone. I had been using the Coke bottle as a salt container but it worked admirably as the core for my mouse trap. Each morning the surface of the water was covered with dead or dying mice. They got disposed of in my privy. My four jars of peanut butter weren't going to last long unless I became more chary when baiting my trap.
After a month or so I stopped getting morning presents in the trap. I cleaned the hell out of the place and replaced all the sleeping mats. I was tired of sitting on the floor anyway. I used wedges to split thick boards out of wood which I'd saved out that had the least number of knots. I bored half inch holes into them, then pegged together a table top and used my one and only little six inch palm plane to clean it up. With my drill, small manual chain saw, chisels, a simple wood cudgel and my palm plane I fashioned a heavy mortise and tenon base for the thing.
Constructing my chairs nearly ruined me for furniture making. First I fashioned a deep bench seat somewhat like that used for a picnic table, but wider so that I might sleep on it near the fire if it got really cold. Then I pegged together a chair with a good back and arms. I carefully planed all the surfaces that I'd be vulnerable to rub against. I took great care to form the seat to fit my bottom as I'd sat in a chair before that bruised my tailbone.
Finally I pegged together several big storage chests that could be used as seats.
The rains were still falling and I'd run out of things to do. I still wanted to make a scythe and a billhook. For those I'd need a bellows and an anvil. Now, I could make a bellows as I could drill holes and drive pins. The anvil, however, was another story. I figured that I'd have to go scavenging.
I started by mapping out what I knew and drew in the trails to the best of my memory. I started exploring in half mile rings centered on the my home cave in the cliff. I was looking for deserted homesteads.
Someone must have transplanted trees and shrubs from Earth to wherever the hell I was. I saw oaks, pines, cedars and even a few Osage orange trees as I walked through the woods. I found it curious that I didn't see any fruitwoods.
My first discovery had me confounded. It was a late 1940's school bus done up as a hunting cabin or some such. What about that 'all you can carry' rule? Not a soul was around. Many bushes had grown up around it. I couldn't even find the garden. I got in through the emergency door at the rear. There were buckets, pots and pans that immediately caught my eye. The canned goods on the shelves were fat with decomposition gasses. The bedding, clothing and boots were useless both due to our differences in size and natural decay. The glasses, plates and bowls pulled me, as well as the knives and cooking tools in the kitchen. His library had become foxed with mold and was unusable--pity. However, I did find a couple readable biographies stashed away in the bedside stand. The old wind-up alarm clock seemed to work. I had no use for the thing myself, but I took it as a possible trade good. He had a box of flat-bound 8 1/2 x 11 notebooks and a box of ballpoint pens which I absconded with. I was very happy to find a big radio flyer four-wheeled wagon with the wooden side stakes. It would make my salvaging much easier as it had a narrow footprint on the trails...
Outside I found hoes, rakes, shovels, spades, axes and two steel splitting wedges. That cart was making deep tracks on the way home. That was a promising find. I wondered at how the 'rules' had changed over the years to allow someone to bring a school bus along. I promised myself to return to the site to look for tools and a tire rim to use as a fire throat for my forge. I wondered about taking the windows and perhaps peeling the metal roof off to make a chimney. After all, I had rivets. The little stove and furnace were fueled by kerosene which would do me no good at all. There were many possible hiding places in that bus that I hadn't pursued. Hell, I didn't even look under the mattress!
After putting away all my newfound treasure I took my new wagon out on another exploration trip. I continued on my circles centered about my home. I smelled smoke at one point where upon I immediately turned around to bypass the area. I dodged in quite closer to the swamp and after marking a good twenty degrees on the map I made my way back out to my previous radius. Trails simply did not exist there. I climbed trees hourly to seek out signs of habitation, gardens or trails. I found a site clearly by accident that was completely overgrown. Some party had dug out a soddy, roofed it over with logs then covered those with brown canvas and turves. Inside, little remained useable but for some ten gallon waxed barrels holding sugar, salt and some very nasty flour. I wondered at where the owners had originated as I found a tea service in a chest and several tins of tea, all quite compromised I'm afraid. The damp had gotten to most of the goods, including the kitchenware, except for one large riveted copper boiling pot that would hold perhaps ten gallons and a real find--a small cast-iron wood-fired stove. On a bench I found an old miner's pick with what I guessed to be a ten inch head. I also found some cold chisels that looked to be in decent shape under the rust. I found a closed box of tools made of oiled wood that had somehow protected its contents. I was overjoyed to find bits and a brace, saws, wood chisels, a draw-shave, a large and small block plane and a variety of sharpening files. I found a kerosene lamp that seemed to be in good shape, two boxes of nails that I could salvage (after tossing them about in a box of sand) and a palm-sized round tin box filled with various sizes of fish hooks. Another good find was four one-gallon stoneware crocks set into a box. I filled the big copper boiler with what I could and began my arduous trek in the rain, back to the cave.
I didn't leave my camp for several days after that except to net a small batch of fresh fish as I had a taste for them. I fried them in a little lard and had a real groaner of a meal.
I returned to the soddy with the radio flyer and some rope. I loaded up the stove and stove pipe. Moving those filthy segments was a nasty business. I was glad to wash the soot off in the rain and run bundles of leaves through the pipes to clean them.
The rains were still making travel difficult on the trails but easy enough in the woods. I cast my search ring out to the east and south.
Someone had transported a fairly modern recreational vehicle without warning the driver. The front end was crushed in by a tree trunk when the whole shebang must have popped in while traveling at highway speed. The rear license tag was almost valid. I used my ever-present screwdriver/pry bar to pop the door open. The owner had been a woman. At least the desiccated corpse behind the wheel was wearing a skirt and an open-necked blouse over a brassiere. When I opened the kitchen cabinets I froze, then immediately left to get my wheelbarrow. There were scads of canned goods just waiting for the first scavenger to come along, which was me. I brought along rope and a canvas tarp to cover everything and mound up my collected find. I ignored my leave-no-trace policy due to the rain and used the paths to move quickly.
It was a bit cold inside the RV but drying off with her big terrycloth towels was sinfully luxurious. There was still gas in the propane lines so I cooked up a nice pot of mixed canned tamales and chili. The crackers were done for however. One can't have everything. I wrapped up in a nice, warm blanket and had a wonderful night's sleep on the king-size bed.
There was no running water but the toilet did work. I began stacking up what I wanted to take back with me. First came the canned food, can opener, towels, bedding, plastic washtubs, soap, sugar, flour, salt, tea, other spices, cooking oil, a ceramic covered Dutch oven and an acoustic guitar in a hard case. I stacked all that into the barrow, then laid a pair of foam cushions and a twin mattress over the lot and tied it all down with the tarp and rope. A last pass through netted me a grizzly-bear-sized can of mace, most of a case of wine, an un-opened fifth of rum, a very nice cleaver, a stash of batteries that were still within their sell-by date, a couple decks of playing cards, a little sewing kit, two boxes of plumber's candles and a small collection of paperbacks. I didn't know who had to die to leave me this magnificent find but I said my very heartfelt thank-you's.
Dragging that extremely heavy barrow back home along with my two over-stuffed foraging bags strapped over my shoulders gave me reason to contemplate the sin of greed. I should have done this in a couple of passes, but no! I had to get it all at once! I berated myself with every squishing step for being a fool. Still, my tracks were obliterated in the mud and the rain.
I was very glad to get everything inside and drying out. Thankfully the mattress had a plastic cover and so was unharmed by the rain.
I had been sleeping on piled-up reed mats for what seemed like ages. It was time to rejoin the twentieth century! With my newly enhanced tool kit I made a box bed frame sized to hold my new mattress. I planed flat the boards so that wild splinters wouldn't give me a surprise, loaded it up with the mattress and added bedding. It was a bit short on me but beggars can't be choosers, eh? I set up a storage box at the foot of the bed and nailed one of the cushions I'd just salvaged over the top to stretch the thing. It worked pretty well.
I cleaned up the stone hearth I'd been using to cook on and set up the stove there. I had a pretty good idea where the draw was in the ceiling and pointed the stove pipe at it. It wasn't perfect but it was a lot better than what I had before.
After thinking about resources and trade goods I took my wagon back to the RV with an adjustable wrench. I closed off the two propane tank valves and detached them from the gas feeds. I brought them back with me. Before leaving the site I stood back to look things over, sort of an Easter egg hunt. My eyes were drawn to the under-floor storage access panels that were on both sides of the RV. One by one, I popped the latches. I had no use for a barbecue grill but I did take the bags of charcoal. I wondered if the charcoal starter fluid would work in a kerosene lamp. She'd bought the large, economy size. It was worth a try. The lawn chair was too small and flimsy to support my weight, but the patio table stored with it was worth taking. The generator was worse than useless to me. It would draw unwanted attention.
I found a foot locker with air force markings. Miriam had been bumped up to Master Sergeant when she separated from the service. I quietly inventoried the locker's contents and put everything back where I found it. I said a quiet prayer for her, closed it back up and pushed it deep into the storage bay. Man, the aliens sure screwed her over. She'd just been out a little over a year and was still getting it together when--WHAM. A head-on collision out of nowhere. I shook my head. What a careless bunch of amoral bastards.