Cleaning Up

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2015 by Howard Faxon

Science Fiction Story: Our family cleaned up the trashed vehicles left on the streets of Chicago's south side. I cleaned up my act and went to college. Our camping advisor had an ulterior motive. He was the agent for humans on an alien planet. They called it Cottman IV, or Darkover.

Tags: Fan Fiction   non-anthro  

When I was a toddler dad called in a favor and got one of the low level contracts to remove abandoned vehicles from the Chicago's south side. He leased flat bed tow trucks from Wiseman Ford and made a hundred and forty bucks from the Cook county road commissioner per removed vehicle. A disposal yard with a car crusher gave us seventy per vehicle on top of that. To stay out of trouble with irate owners the cops marked 'em and dad towed 'em away. After the race riots in the 60's there were one hell of a lot of burned out wrecks.

When I learned to keep my mouth shut dad let me ride shotgun. I think I was about nine. I watched him pull batteries and pull out the seats of a lot of old cars to recover what people had forgotten or lost. We collected a lot more pistols than you'd think. It being the early seventies we found a lot of illegal drugs too. The pills and baggies of white powder got dumped down the storm sewers. Dad took the pot home to get high with mom. From the sounds I heard it sure made her frisky. The batteries brought in a lot of money. The pistols? not so much. It was just that there were so many of them! They went to the pawn shops. Even with the time taken to scavenge we took eight to twelve cars and trucks off the street every day with one tow truck, depending on how far we found 'em from the wrecking yard. It kept a roof over our heads, food in our bellies and we had good clothes for church.

After I became a teen dad started me doing some of the scavenging work. The cars never had keys, but I had a universal tool--a three foot pry bar. I learned to pop a trunk lid in fifteen seconds. People left suitcases, tool boxes and guitars in their trunks. My eyes popped the first time I found a roll of bills in a drug dealer's car. Everything went to dad, though. What the hell was I going to do with five hundred odd bucks? Get in trouble?

When I was seventeen dad leased a flatbed for me. It was in his name to keep the insurance down and to fool the Commercial Drivers License people, but I drove it. We got a few new contracts to dispose of cars left in police impound lots and a few other places that stored vehicles for insurance companies. We got paid less for them but we got a lot better swag. Especially from the insurance claim vehicles. I got a nice deer rifle in an aluminum case and a couple shotguns that way. I also hooked out a nice fiberglass recurve bow that I had fun shooting. We got more vehicles per hour moved to the crusher from those as well, averaging under one an hour because they were all in just a few places. We didn't have to go looking for them.

It was a good thing that more abandoned cars and trucks kept showing up. Otherwise we'd have passed the break-even point paying for gasoline, insurance and the tow truck leases. Dad went to the city offices with proof of our increased expenses over time and got our rate increased to two hundred and ten dollars per chassis. It sure eased our household budget.

Mom made dad and me baggie dinners. As soon as I got home from school I went out with my flatbed and started hooking police-marked cars and trucks. With the traffic and distances involved I averaged one every hour and three quarters to one every two and a quarter. I worked until after ten every night and drove almost continuously on Saturdays and Sundays. We kept those trucks in the best shape we could to get the highest MPG, stretching our fuel dollars. It wasn't an easy life but our house in Oak Lawn was paid for. We had a four year old Toyota and a chest freezer full of meat in the garage. There were a lot of folks around doing much worse.

The wrecking yard was next to the 294 corridor in Alsip so making runs down to Chicago Heights was no great hardship. One Saturday I was hauling cars and trucks out of an insurance yard at a hundred bucks a pop and getting twenty bucks per core for the batteries. I popped the trunk latch on a late model BMW to see what might have been overlooked. It was my standard operating procedure. Neatly lined up I found an American Tourister suitcase and four oversized catalog cases. The suitcase didn't hold any surprises. However, when I went to pull out one of the catalog cases I about wrenched my shoulder. I had to put one hand on the trunk frame to power lift them out of the trunk well. Curious as to what was so damned heavy, I popped the latches one by one. It was a Christly enormous coin collection. The inside covers of the cases were marked "Numismatic Financial Corporation". Each case contained three sets of four books, each one fourteen inches tall. I flipped through the books one by one. I didn't see much new stuff, and it was mostly silver. One of the cases had a lot of tiny little gold coins in it going up to big honkers, and the contents of one entire book of coins were marked 'Krugerrand' and 'One Oz. Fine Gold'. I'd heard of them, and I realized that at least my college education was assured. Each book held twenty coins to a page and sixteen full pages. I figured it out at fifteen troy ounces per pound. There was twenty-one and a third pounds of gold coins sitting there. I didn't know who owned it all before but it was mine now! I got them up into the foot well of the tow truck's passenger seat. That was my biggest find ever. Still, I dragged out seventeen cars and trucks that day before calling it quits at ten.

When I got home with my loot I was bursting to tell my folks. Mom and Dad were sitting at the kitchen table just staring at a couple flat open wood boxes. At first I thought that they were fancy silverware cases. Then I got a closer look. They were filled with little tan paper envelopes about an inch square. Mom was giggling and crying. Dad looked like he'd seen a ghost. He said, "Pull up a chair, Tommy. You're lookin' at ours and your retirement." He looked back at the boxes and whispered, "Diamonds. Almost a thousand diamonds, all cut, polished and graded."

I flopped down in a chair and laughed. "And I thought that I'd hit the swag of the century. I've got a rare coin collection in the truck that weighs over a hundred and twenty pounds. A good quarter of it looks like it's in gold coin." Mom crossed herself and said, "Thank you Lord Jaysus."

I had a bad thought. "You know that the tax man's goin' to eat us alive, don't you? We'd best try to lay off as much as we can on dealers. If we can get cash under the table so much the better for us." They nodded soberly. We all begrudged the tax man his unfair share. We were from Chicago. It was a given that the rich paid less to the government that us working class stiffs. The unfairness of it always bothered us.

Dad helped me get the coin collection in the house. We spread out the books on the table and slowly went through them. They were all beautiful except for some really ugly coins marked Puerto Rico. I wondered what they were doing in there, but kept my mouth shut. It was late and we had church in the morning. It was time for bed.

While listening to the service I notice that mom had a troubled look on her face. I leaned over to whisper in her ear. "We can tithe one of the books of silver to the church and let THEM get it appraised." She seemed a lot happier after that. Over our Sunday pork roast we planned what to do next. We got out the phone book to look for gemstone and coin dealers. We marked them out on a map. Then we took instamatic pictures of each page of each book.

Mom called the school Monday morning, saying I had pink-eye. It's infectious as hell so I had an automatic five day pass.

We packed most of the silver and some of the gold, as well as the jewels in the car. I argued that we keep the Krugerrands in reserve because they were like cash--they traded at the spot market price anywhere that traded in gold.

It turned out that they were the most inexpensive gold coins in the collection.

I also put aside a double handful of the smaller gold coins. Gold dollars, fractional eagles, eagles and double eagles. I wasn't an end-of-the-world year 2000 nut or anything, but with the price of gas going through the roof and the value of the dollar against other currencies shifting all over the place, I thought it was common sense to hold out what I could after a windfall like that.

Coin by coin, book by book we got the collection appraised, all but one book of the silver coins, the Krugerrands and the book of small golds that I absconded with. We couldn't afford the percentage cost of the appraisals so we offered some of the collection in payment. The appraisers couldn't screw us as they'd already written down their guaranteed values. Some of those coins were worth upwards of twenty thousand bucks. Those ugly Puerto Rican coins were some of them!

We took the last book of silver to church with us the next Sunday. After the service we asked to talk to the priest. We explained that we were given a gift and wished to tithe part of it to the church. Dad wasn't very happy with the whole idea, but mom was a staunch Catholic and rode over him with hobnail boots. When it came to matters of faith mom drew out her flaming sword and took no prisoners.

You don't lie to a priest. You just don't. When the greedy bugger asked how much we found, mom was bound and determined to tell the truth. She said forty-eight books, one of which we wanted to give to the church. When he started to get his pious, put-upon puppy-dog eye look dad lost it. He slammed the damned thing down on his desk and bellowed out, "You'll take it and be thankful, or we'll be talkin' to the Methodists!" That shut him up as fast as he could inhale. When he started leafing through the pages his fingers started to shake. If that book appraised like the others did then he had well over a million bucks in his sweaty hands. I wondered how much of it the Bishop was going to see. I quietly said to him, "The Bishop will be notified as to how many coins we've donated. We took pictures of each page of each book." The man had been in politics too long. He looked really disappointed.

We sold maybe a dozen coins locally, then used that money to book airline tickets for New York, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Denver, Portland and Seattle. Dad and I offered to sell at eighty percent of the appraised values. It took us two weeks of traveling and selling to exchange a good two fifths of both of the collections. We had to ship cash and Krugerrands back by the most secure way we could. Mom had to sign for the packages at the post office and show her driver's license.

Everything else we wanted to sell went to Sotheby's auction house. They photographed everything and advertised the living hell out of the auction. It got international billing. They held it in D.C. Some of those coins must have been quite rare as the auction brought in much more than the appraised values. The auction house took their cut off the top then the IRS took their cut of the gross. Then the state of Illinois got in on the action and the City of Chicago. We were left with seventy one million from the auction along with the thirty-four million we cleared by our door-to-door selling. An expensive lawyer convinced us to shield the money under a corporation and take salaries. I started banking fifty thousand bucks a year, pre-tax.

I dressed the same. I acted the same. The only change in my lifestyle was I bought a used BMW automatic sedan then had the engine, suspension and drive train rebuilt. It didn't show but I'd trust it to take me across the country and back. I went back to school with a note from a doctor. I kept my nose clean and graduated my senior year.

Dad and I kept hooking abandoned cars for want of anything else to do. Mom was happy enough to keep house after we knew that we'd never worry about the budget again.

Dad decided to buy mom a new house. His reasons were both to make mom happy and to get away from the crooked Cook county tax commission. We moved down south to Mokena in Will county. He found a few wooded acres and had a nice single-story ranch home built out of pit-mined limestone blocks. It was close enough to get us onto I-80 with easy access to the south Chicago corridors, yet private enough to not have to worry about the neighbors robbing our house.

I spent six months with tutors learning to get a good score on the SAT. I did pretty damned good on the test, then looked around for a school. I still had no damned idea of what to study. Still, mom and dad were proud as hell. I was the first Calloway to go to college in recorded history, and that family bible went back to births, marriages and deaths in Scotland.

I decided to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. It was a city of a school, but after living in Chicago the crowding didn't bother me. I had to clout a couple kids that ran wild in the dormitory and caught some shit for it, but it all died down soon after. As soon as the first quarter grades came out most of the troublemakers headed for home with their tails between their legs.

After running through the usual pain-in-the-ass freshman courses that everyone had to get out of the way, I took Gaelic, math, economics and some computer courses. Grandpa taught me a little Gaelic as a kid and it stuck with me. When I cussed out other kids it made me sound like Zeus casting thunderbolts. My third year I continued with Gaelic, took some Spanish, continued with some computer courses and branched out into agronomy and animal husbandry. I followed whatever interested me. During my fourth year I took up hand-to-hand combat, archery, more Gaelic and Spanish, then learned more about soil chemistry.

I took a year and a half off to work with an Amish family in Indiana. I had a great time. Amos and Grace made me feel at home. Their passel of kids didn't know what to think of me so I got pretty much ignored. I attended their Sunday services and lent my voice to the choir. If I'd known German I'd have fit in a lot better. Their Bishop and I got along well, and I did my best to follow Ordenung while I was with them. They taught me a lot of practical stuff about managing cows, chickens, pigs and horses.

On going back to college I took more animal husbandry classes as well as first aid, German 2 and conversational German.

John, An ex-ranger was the advisor for a camping club. He had red curly hair like me. After watching how I moved and dealt with farm animals he invited me in. I didn't have much trouble coping with a Kelty external frame pack. I bought a big British Army Bergen and lashed it to the frame. Its original bright blue pack was kind of nasty. I had a seamstress that worked with canvas replace the cheesy plastic zippers with big, hefty darkened brass jobs.

When I met the group for the first time I was surprised to see that they all had red hair of some color. What was this? an Irish drinking and chowder society?

We met twice a week and every Saturday morning. I found it curious that he held quarterstaff classes, then saber classes. I did all right by putting my shoulder into my blocks and attacks while keeping my elbows tucked in. He was delighted at my proficiency with the bow. I was deadly at twenty meters.

Something wasn't right. Why were we being groomed for primitive living?

I accumulated ferrocerium rods, even though they were only available in Sweden and Germany at the time. Likewise I stored three 30" Swedish saw blades along with a few fat nails in a tube in my pack. With great difficulty I found one quart steel canteens with wide mouths and screw-top caps. I bought a dozen for the club, keeping two. I practiced my fire making with a bow-drill as well as flint and steel. Even though they were heavy as hell I carried a little six inch pair of needle nose vise grips. They'd let me pull an arrow head out of a tree or bone, act as a great pot lifter and if I broke a saw or knife blade I could still use what was left by using the pliers as a handle.

My medical kit was odd. I carried a couple military compresses, some band-aids, a couple really big handkerchiefs, a bottle of iodine, a few pre-threaded sutures, a pack of sterile wipes, fifty chloramphenicol tablets (a broad-spectrum antibiotic), fifty Flagyl tablets (good against amoebic dysentery and protozoa), a fifty-count bottle of Advil, a tube of zinc oxide, some roll gauze, a bottle of vitamins and a big honkin' bottle of potassium iodide pills. All I could find were bottles of five hundred, so that's what I bought and carried. The pills were tiny though, so the bottle wasn't really huge. I had all this hanging off my pack in a big butt-pack of its own. It was a good place to keep my fishing kit, a roll of duct tape, a little sewing kit with some heavy sail needles and some big safety pins too. I kept a couple boxes of chlorine dioxide tablets in there as well for expedient water purification.

Some research taught me how to make linseed oil saturated oilcloth with mineral spirits so that it dried enough to fold up and not be sticky or tacky. I built up a large supply of Vaseline soaked cotton balls for fire starters. They packed down well in a couple quart-size baggies. I stuffed my pack with a little cooking kit, two balls of cotton cordage, fifty feet of braided steel wire, fifty feet of parachute cord and fifty feet of quarter inch jute rope. My bedroll held an oiled wool sweater and pants, an oilskin rain poncho and a big oilskin tarp, a shower curtain to use as a ground cloth, a jeep shovel and a limbing axe. My canteens hung off the sides of my pack. I teamed up with another two guys that were edgy about the club's purpose. They evaluated my kit and added to theirs as well. We memorized the SAS survival manual, page by page. It taught us to each carry a stainless steel bow, bolts, miscellaneous hardware and wire strings for a crossbow in our packs. We also carried fishing line, fish hooks, arrow heads, spear heads and frog gigs. I also carried a couple big rolled up oilcloth shoulder bags for foraging. I figured that we were ready for whatever he'd throw at us.

It's amazing how wrong a person can be and still live to tell about it.

It was the spring of 1983. The trees had leafed out. The grass was green and thick. Mother nature was in full swing. Many trees were already in flower and the bulbs were up. We all wanted to get out of the city. John managed to find a property adjacent to the Red River Gorge in east-central Kentucky for us to use. We were going out for a two week survival skills training class and camp out.

The thirteen of us including John took a large van out to the site. We had enough LRPS meals in our bags for about half the trip, but we'd have to forage, fish or hunt for anything beyond that. We all expected to lose weight on the trip.

As soon as we got to our campsite the first thing we did was evaluate it for dangers, water flow during rains and wind exposure. We made sure our tent sites were well off any game trails so animals wouldn't blunder into our shelters at night. We were in an open forest with irregular under story, camped on a shelf of a hillside and away from any big trees that would have deep tap roots and attract lightning.

First John got us together for a 'mind set' lecture. "You're all here together and I expect you to cooperate with each other. Some will forage, some will hunt and no doubt some will fish. I've brought along ten pounds of salt and a pound of peppercorns. Wild garlic and ramps will be up by now. There might be some fiddlehead ferns around. Look for last year's vines to dig for tubers. There's an old farm site near here, and the volunteer crops growing from the old garden will probably be there waiting for you. Remember, don't take everything--leave enough behind to reproduce. Harvest in strips.

Hunters, I suggest you attempt to trap small game rather than hunt. Animals are supremely adapted to survival in the wild. You aren't." He fished a hand full of packages out of his musette bag and handed them out. "Rat traps. They're more efficient than any damned snare and a lot easier to set up. Use peanut butter, candy or anything fatty to bait them. Make sure you bore a hole in the corner and tie them down or an animal might run off with your trap." I grabbed one. I said to the guy next to me, "Genius." He nodded in agreement.

He turned back to the van and hauled out four big lidded cast iron pots on legs. Each one looked to hold about a gallon and a half. "These are for cooking and water purification. Never drink water right from a creek or river, unless it's coming out of a spring. Look around for where you want to dig a latrine. Don't make a pit. For this many people, dig a squat trench, two feet long per person. Take a hand full of leaves with you when you go to do your business, then cover it all with a thin layer of dirt. Make sure you flag the ends of the trench with something bright so that nobody steps in the damned thing during the night.

Daylight's burning, people. Get busy. Gather firewood, dig a fire pit and dig your latrine."

I grabbed my shovel and walked off about thirty paces from camp along a moderately open path. We had to cut some of it clear. I looked around, and saw that no open water was in sight so I started digging. I went two feet down. I dug a few feet then handed off the shovel to the next guy. I used a couple strips of white gauze bandage to use as flags.

My hands were okay so I started in on a fire pit. With four pots we'd probably want a slit trench for the fire. I piled the dirt on the uphill side because as it gets dark cool air tends to flow downhill. Others had gone out for firewood. I noticed a significant lack of kindling showing up. This didn't bode well for the team.

I went out looking for fallen evergreens. Pretty close to camp I found a downed cedar tree that had pulled up its root ball as it fell. I harvested a few handfuls of dried twigs then used my little axe to bash away at the root ball until most of the dirt fell away. I chopped free a good arm full of the resin-bearing root cores that were inside the rotting bark. Fatwood. It's like nature's gasoline. I also skived off a sheet of bark to use as a stage to lay our fire on and to use as a camp table. That damned SAS survival guide was like a field craft bible.

On the way back to camp I spotted a dead standing hickory sapling. I levered it over to take back to camp, roots and all. I had a couple projects in mind for that straight-grained wood.

We each had brought enough fresh meat for a couple of days. I'd brought a steak for the first night and an un-sliced two-pound fitch of smoked bacon. The butcher called it hunter's gammon because it was double-smoked and dryer than the usual store-bought stuff. It still had the rind on it. Some of that would bait my trap.

I seared my meat on a forked stick and cut off slices as it cooked. Great stuff. A couple girls headed out with the kettles to find water. They were pretty beat by the time they got back to camp. We got the water on the fire to sterilize. While I had some daylight I hung my fresh food from a branch. There definitely was wildlife in the area. Then I sat down with that hickory sapling. My little Victorinox's saw eventually chewed through the butt end of it just above the root ball. That went into the fire as it'd burn low and slow, hopefully leaving us enough coals to start a fire with in the morning.

I measured my shoulder width plus a foot, then cut off that much of the thicker part of the stick. I found the center, then started cutting out a long half-oval on one side, making sure not to go too deep. I used a knife to scrape it smooth, then carved a hook in each end. After tying an arm-length rope over each hook I had a pretty good expedient shoulder yoke to haul around a couple of those kettles. We didn't have any S-hooks, so I tied a solid loop in the lower ends and cut a couple pegs to attach the kettle bails. John watched me with interest. "What gave you the idea for it?"

"I spent over a year with an Amish family. I learned a lot of low-tech tricks from them."

When I finished with that I bored a hole near one corner of the rat trap then cleaned up the rest of the sapling to make a walking stick. It was a little light for a quarterstaff but it would do in a pinch. About four inches from the thick end I bored a hole through it. Somewhere in my pack I had a wall hook. It had a spike to hammer into a log cabin wall or a tree and an open hook at the other. I figured that I could force the spike through the stick and wrap it firmly in place, then use it to add to my reach when dipping water out of a mudded-in spring or a deep stream cut. I had more work to do to it, but it was getting late. I used the latrine, strung my oilcloth and curled up in my blanket with my pack under my head.

I woke with the sun. I was pretty groggy for some reason but I remembered where I'd helped to dig the latrine. I walked out that way but got a surprise. It wasn't there. This pissed me off more than anything else. I pissed on a tree and headed back to camp. I woke up enough to realize that the sunlight was a lot more red than it should be. Outside of a big circle centered on our camp the trees were different too. Larger, older. The temperature was cooler as well. When I got back to camp I put on my wool sweater. John was sitting near the fire, brewing some coffee. "I'll miss this when my supply runs out."

I squatted down next to him and quietly said, "Just where the hell are we, and how did we get here?"

He nodded. "Good questions. I'm going to wait on answering you though, until everyone wakes up and gets over their first panic."

I looked around at all the brightly colored campsites and shook my head. My stuff was all dull brown and dull green. I was wearing military BDU's and side-zip paratrooper's boots.

I picked up my axe and a foraging bag then went out looking for some 'craft supplies'. Bushcraft supplies. I found a stand of what looked like hazel wands. I cut a couple to make a bucksaw. Next I searched out that fallen cedar. I wanted to harvest as much Fatwood as I could. With Fatwood and a vaseline-soaked cotton ball I could start a fire in a rainstorm. (well, with a little cover. I'm not Superman.)

I found another dead standing straight sapling. It looked pretty tough. It was a bit larger than the one I'd harvested the night before but with the aid of some rope I managed to pull it over. I knocked the dirt free of the root ball, picked it up and dragged it back to camp. John watched me with a little smile. He wandered over to where I had set up shop. "Whatcha doin'?"

I replied, "First, I'm going to make a bucksaw. Then I want to saw three or four good wedges out of this root ball. Next I'm going to cut a good straight-grained piece for a crossbow stock. Then we'll need another shoulder yoke. The rest should serve for a couple quarter staffs and maybe a short spear."

"You've got quarrels? points? Spearheads?"

I nodded. "Three of us do. Simple fishing kits and frog gigs, too. The SAS survival guide is a treasure trove."

He smiled. "You give me hope that we'll make it."

He stood up and clapped his hands. "Gather round everyone." Soon he had an attentive audience. "Overnight a ball of Earth with you on it was exchanged for a ball of soil and rock on a planet called Gliese 581 g, also known as Cottman 4. We're a lot closer to the sun because it's a red dwarf. That also explains the coloration to the sunlight. The planet's a little larger and heavier than Earth. Consequently the gravity is a little higher. The oxygen content of the air is a little higher than that of Earth too. Regrettably there's not much land. It's a colder planet than Earth. It's late spring now. The winters are incredibly brutal. We're only a few degrees from the equator. You can't imagine what it's like near the poles. Orbital pictures show carbon dioxide snow there. It's blue.

There's a lot of wildlife and some serious predators too. Tom over there," he nodded in my direction. "is building a crossbow. I understand that some others here have the makings too. I suggest that you get busy putting them together. The plants around our campground will smell strange to the wildlife for a while, giving us a short-term sanctuary. It won't last long. If you leave camp for any reason go in pairs and carry a fending weapon, something longer than your arm.

The planet has swamps, forests, grasslands, deserts and seacoasts. But primarily it has mountains. Huge mountain ranges. Up north there's what we call the shield wall. It's covered in glaciers and over nine thousand feet tall. It could be higher. If there's a pass through it, nobody's found it yet.

There are several truly ancient cities here that predate man coming to this planet. There's Shainsa in the north east. It's in the middle of a cold desert. Verdanta is centrally located on lake Mariposa. Neskaya is an old trading city far to the east. Thendara is central and south. That's where I was born. Temora is on a southern seacoast. Carcarosa is also to the south, but far to the east. As far as we know it's deserted and there's no water. Armida is at the crossing of five trading routes, deep in the central forest. That's where we'll be heading once we break camp.

There's rumors of a city named Tramontana far to the north, deep in the mountains. Nobody has returned alive from trying to find it. Man isn't the only intelligent race on the planet. The others don't look human either so if you see fur or scales beneath the hood of a robe steady yourself and don't show any emotion. The others are quick to anger and take insult easily. Everyone wears a sword for a reason. The only law is clan law.

As to how we got here, Hell, I don't know either. I'm just your guide. The tech's way, way beyond me."

I piped up, "What's the planet called?"

He replied, "Darkover".

Once I got over my shock about the whole thing, I sat and thought about my predicament. When God moves your chess piece you play it where you lay. I didn't suppose that God did it, but the effect was the same. I'd have to accept what happend and carry on, or go mad.

I got my gunstock carved out, mounted the cocking stirrup, smoothed down the bolt groove and carefully sawed out a slot to mount the bow. The short little sucker had an eighty five pound pull. I needed a cocking stirrup to keep from cutting my fingers to hell. I carved a pocket for the trigger, bored a couple of holes for its pivot and forced a couple brass tubes into them as bearings. Then a big, fat nail served as my pivot. A split claw held the cocked bowstring. My first test-firing was a little low but right on the money. I had to dig the quarrel out with my axe. John was watching. "Remember, higher G means a faster rate of fall. Your compensation will be off at first. Expect it." I nodded. "Say, what's the coin of the realm?" He replied, "Copper, Steel, Silver and Gold, in that order." I was carrying a big fist full of gold dollars around my neck in a leather bag--maybe three pounds worth. I sure as hell wasn't going to tell anyone about it, including John. Greed is a terrible thing. It's like a thirst.

I was carrying something that was a spur of the moment when we left, though. I'd visited a coin dealer in town and picked up a couple handfuls of his bargain-bin silver coins. They were so defaced that you had to know what they were to tell, but they all had milled edges. I later learned that John always stocked up on the same type of silver coins while on earth, as well as small surgical tools and small high-quality lenses. They had a high enough value on Darkover to make them worth transporting.

After finishing my crossbow I rubbed some olive oil from my cooking kit into the wood, then held it over the fire until the oil soaked in and the wood started to turn brown. That waterproofed it to a degree and made it harder to see at a distance. After we caught some game I'd want to boil up a little of the skin to make glue. A strip of black handkerchief glued to the limbs of the bow would further help to disguise it. I fashioned a sling for it out of a piece of spare strapping so that I could hang it over one of the vertical bars sticking out of my pack frame.

I'd already made one shoulder yoke. Carving out another one was just an exercise in care.

Quarterstaves are easy to make but hard to temper. They have to be repeatedly oiled and held in the hot smoke above a fire until they hardened. Then the ends had to be chamfered, then bound with wire or a metal cap to keep them from splitting. I kept one and gave away another as well as the thinner staff I'd made the first night. I noticed John carving a couple as well.

I made some damper and cooked some sliced bacon draped over a stick to make a bacon sarnie for dinner.

That night I duct taped four golds to the inside of my belt and put four inside the plastic grip of my Victorinox Hunter, then hid the rest in my dirty socks deep inside my pack.

I had oatmeal for breakfast. After I cleaned up I took care to sharpen my knives and axe.

A slender woman named Ellen asked if she could hang with me. I gave her the nod. I figured that the better prepared among us would end up protecting the others, but not until we'd started down the trail. I suggested that she stow her bright yellow shelter and sleep under my tarp with me, as that thing was an invitation to an attack. We'd cover her bright green pack with a black garbage bag once we hit the trail. She'd been eating Eckridge smoked sausage--not a bad idea. They could be eaten cold if necessary, while walking on the trail. I carried a couple pounds of pinole for the same reason. I thought that it was a bit better choice because it was a more condensed food and animals wouldn't come to the smell, even though the sausage provided a complete protein palette which the ground corn really didn't.

We went foraging together but didn't find much. A little wild garlic and some mint. Beyond the demarcation line between the Earth and local flora things just got too different. I told her, "Once we hit the trail we should walk behind John and have him identify edible plants for us. We don't have the knowledge that a native would."

She was practiced with a spear as one of the Wushu weapons. We searched out a good hardwood shaft for her that didn't taper much. Once it was peeled, rubbed with sand and oiled I carefully sawed a slot in one end, inserted one of my precious spear heads and firmly wired it in place. When she gave a tree a few experimental lunges the head shifted. It had a couple holes bored through it, so I tore down the mount and measured where to bore a couple holes through the shaft. After carving a couple good sturdy pegs out of a tree root I pounded them in and re-wrapped the mount with braided wire. I carefully pounded the wire with the hammer poll of my axe to bed it into the shaft, then I re-tightened the lashing and called it ready for prime time. She was happy with it as well.

The next morning we had breakfast, filled our canteens, broke camp and started traveling. We were breaking trail by an hour and a half after dawn. Ellen, John, the other guys with crossbows and I seemed to be the only ones aware of our surroundings. The rest followed along in clumps, not talking, fearful. It was like they were cardboard cutouts of real people. They were so far out of their comfort zone that they'd forgotten what it felt like. I was concerned for their survival. John shrugged and said that he always seemed to lose a few on each mission. Cold, John. Cold. He'd been doing this for too long.

As we navigated through the brush and vines John gave us the lowdown on foraging. "If a plant has any purple in the leaves, veins or the stalk, don't touch it. Any fungus or mushrooms that grow above waist height won't kill you. When we reach established camp sites look around for potato vines. For some reason they're everywhere. Like I said, don't strip out any beds. Harvest in narrow strips so that they can fill in over a year or two. Do not eat any round firm berries no matter what they look like. I it looks like a raspberry or a blackberry it's safe to eat."

We broke for a quick lunch, then it was back to work. It was hard going as there wasn't any established trail. We tried to follow game trails that headed in the direction we wanted, but game trails are never straight. When we found a small clearing in the trees we stopped for the day.

I dug a small pit for the fire after I loaned the firewood team my saw. It was tough going to get through the root mass below the surface litter. I had to clear over twice the area I wanted for the fire so that any roots wouldn't catch fire and burn underground. We had to find water with our ears. We listened for the sound of a rivulet running over rocks. It too was beneath the root mat. We boiled water for our beverages and to refill our canteens. Digging a pit toilet was a chore, too. I was glad to have my leather gloves.

I borrowed a few rat traps and baited them with slivers of fatty bacon rind.

We set up our shelters close by the fire pit. Ellen and I lay quietly side by side, listening to the forest noises change as daylight faded. I concentrated on the sounds of the fire and fell asleep.

In the morning I found four little critters in my traps. We got them skinned, cleaned and disjointed, then put them into one of the pots with enough water to cover and a few hot rocks from the fire. By lunch time we had a meat soup. Everyone got at least a cupfull. It raised everyone's spirits. The next night all twelve rat traps were employed. We had to shift to making two kettle's worth at a time. John had quite the eye for gathering edible plants. Whatever he found went into the pots.

As we traveled we did our best not to leave evidence of our passing. The offal and skins from the critters went into our pit latrines before we covered them over. The firepits were drowned and covered then the root mats were pulled back into place as best we could. It wasn't perfect but the damage would probably heal within a month. Forest floors can be incredibly resilient if there's enough water available.

For some reason the bugs didn't bother us, even though we could see them swarming around us. When I asked John about it, he said that we all had proteins from Earth that were incompatible with the local insects and plants. We could eat the meat but we weren't getting the full benefit of it as if we were native born. John was a second generation emigre from Earth. His parents had been transported much as we had been. We'd have to undergo a treatment to change our amino acid balances to survive on the planet long-term or we'd gradually starve from protein and vitamin deficiencies. I started taking a couple vitamins a day and gave Ellen some as well. I actually felt better after a day or so. After that I handed them out to the other guys with crossbows too. We had to remain in top shape to guard the others. We heard the screams of the carnivores at night. We knew that they were out there.

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