It was the middle of September before I was sure I could be reasonably comfortable during winter. Of course “reasonably” is a subjective description; the Spartan yet high tech accommodations of the SEPH dorms was a paradise compared to what I was able to pull together. Compared to the nothing I’d had in the city, my nest was paradise so I wasn’t going to complain; who would I have complained to? I’d found a cabin in the woods well off the beaten path when I had been hunting and foraging … plants, squirrels, cottontail, and wood I could pick up or drag back to a temporary site I had picked.
The cabin must have been pretty rustic even back in the day because time hadn’t done that much damage to it. It was smallish but since it was only me who cared? The best feature was the basement. It had real wood paneling on the walls and a thick wood floor on top of a subfloor of drainage gravel and concrete beams. Someone had put some work into the obvious remodel but stopped before reaching the first floor. In addition to the flooring there was a composting toilet in a corner bathroom that could be emptied on a steep slope on that side when I eventually needed to. The best feature of all however was the fireplace on one end of the large room and the Ben Franklin stove on the other end.
The only furniture down there were built in cabinets that were empty and a futon sofa. I took off the dry rotted cushion from the futon, hauled it away to my wood pile to be used as tender, and was left with a good, sound frame that I hoped to turn into my bed.
Upstairs was even barer except for the few cabinets in the tiny kitchen and another composting toilet in the miniscule bathroom on that floor. I discovered a rotten post hole in the center of the “yard” that I suspected once held a “for sale” sign as there was a rectangular piece of rusted metal under a decade’s worth of fallen leaves. Heavy wooden shutters were also locked over all the windows leaving the glass still intact beneath and keeping animals out. I had to dig years’ worth of leaves out of a small, partially capped well but I was relieved that when I have finally gotten the many buckets of muck and junk out it included no animal bones. It didn’t take much to punch through the last layer of mud and I scrambled out of the hole as fast as I could as water started gooshing up. I left it alone for a whole week but after that time all I had to do was drop a bucket … or the old spaghetti pot that I had turned into a bucket … down into the hole and up would come clear silt-free water that I didn’t have to pick tadpoles out of before I could drink it.
When I wasn’t hunting for food or figuring out some way to preserve it I was bringing back all the wood I could carry. An axe was the one thing I had yet to find so I was left with using an old pocket chain saw that I had purchased at a barter meet for a whole cage of rats. It limited the size wood I could bring back to the cabin and slowly but surely the chain because dull and useless on all but the softest wood. When I wasn’t doing either of those things – or even if I was – I was looking for items to make my nest comfortable. First came warmth; I had a fireplace and stove but unless I wanted to sleep on the floor or eventually run around in the nude I needed to find cloth.
I was beginning to wonder if I would have to stuff what clothes I had with grass and leaves for insulation when I finally found an attic that wasn’t cleaned out. There were several cedar lined storage trunks filled with clothes, quilts, lace, and linens. Not the crappy stuff manufactured for the last half century or better but good heavy material tightly woven. It took me almost a week to empty that attic of what I wanted.
In another house I found some rugs that hadn’t dry rotted. I had a hard time rolling them up and bringing them back; they were twice my size. I had an even harder time cleaning them and then getting them down the stairs to the basement; but as soon as I had them arranged my little nest became cozy. And I know it had to be some trick of the imagination but the whole cabin seemed friendlier, like it had realized and appreciated I was trying to take care of it after so many years of being abandoned. I wasn’t going for House Beautiful though; I did just enough cleaning upstairs to make things healthy. I knew there would be time over the winter to do it better and the most immediate need was food.
I was always hungry just like I had been in the city. It was a hunger that never went away and drove all other thoughts from your mind. I could barely wait to get any food I found back to the cabin and sometimes didn’t but grazed like the mule deer and elk I often saw, as well as the occasional small bison herd that would wander through the town. Those big guys I avoided. I got treed once by a crazy, big antlered elk that must have been shrooming as crazy as it was acting. I had absolutely no desire to repeat the experience and even less to be gored by a bison. I ate mostly plant material and squirrels with the occasional cottontail thrown in when I could get off a lucky pellet. I was still learning the habits and habitats of the animals in the area but the changing seasons were against me. I knew before the winter was out I would be forced to try for one of the larger animals but I decided to try for a mule deer as they seemed a lot less aggressive than the others.
I collected and dried chokecherries and currants by the gallon in a dehydrator I made following the directions I had downloaded back at SEPH; I fooled them saying it was a project on the renewable energy craze. They ate that up of course and they never again questioned what they called my obsession with obsolete eras.
September was the month I found several old hedgerows full of wild plums, patches of highbush cranberries, wild onions, and wild garlic. I also found old apple trees in the yards of homes in and around town and had to fight the deer for my share of the ripe ones. They were small and tart but so good and I happily filled all of the glass jars and crocks that I collected with all of my dried bounty. The biggest surprise was when one of my shots went wide and I caused a bee hive to swarm. I got stung a couple of times but it didn’t hurt as bad as the wasps that would sometimes swarm out of old buildings in the city. I gathered easily fifty pounds of honey and comb from that hive and hadn’t even taken half of their stash.
October surprised me with a dusting of snow that quickly disappeared and the first of the rose hips. The cold weather I eventually acclimated to as I had in the city and at night I would curl up in front of the fireplace, read something on my tablet, and sip rose hip tea in the hopes that all of the Vitamin C would help me avoid a winter cold. At night it fell below freezing several times and I would have to wait for the frost to melt before heading out.
November ushered in the lean time. The green plants that had sustained me since my escape from SEPH were brown and withered except in the most protected places. I still found burdock roots, sun chokes, and a few other roots but the starches didn’t provide everything I needed. The hunger I felt was a living, breathing animal inside me. I burnt more calories every day staying warm and searching for food than I could consume.
I felt myself slowing down. My aim suffered which meant it took me longer to bring in the life sustaining meat that I needed. Finally I knew I would have no choice but to bring down a bigger animal. I needed the fat and I needed enough meat to preserve and get me through the winter when game would be scarce and the weather too bad to be out in. But when it happened I was taken completely by surprise.
I had hunted unsuccessfully for a deer for over a week. Oh I saw them, I saw them all over the place, but while my sling shot was great for small game and water fowl (before they left at the first sign of cold weather), it was completely inadequate for anything bigger … or maybe I was inadequate at using it for that purpose. I was ready to give up and go back to trying to fish when once again I was given proof that Some One was watching over me. It came not in the form of manna from Heaven or a large cache of hidden supplies, but in the guise of a clumsy elk.
I was sitting in a patch of sun trying to warm my hands so I could pull and cock the sling shot and watching some male elks have a throw down so they could bag some of the harem of another big male elk that was watching them with what looked like contempt. The doe elks didn’t look particularly impressed either and moved off beyond the trees.
I must have been sitting there an hour slowly stupefying when I watched this one fella with a decent antler spread step off the trail for a bite of something. He lost his footing in the scree and went tail over antlers down the short slope. It wasn’t a particularly long or hard fall and I expected to see him get up, shake himself off, and then prance away trying not to look embarrassed to have sent the herd thundering away in a stampede. But he didn’t get up. He didn’t even move. I leaned over from my vantage point and noticed the awkward angle of his neck.
I am not squeamish. I’ve raised and eaten rat. I’ve made myself a coat from the combined hides of the rats and cats during one of my more quixotic turns. I’ve hunted and cleaned small game and had their hides strung on the trees drying at the cabin. I’ve gutted more fish than I can count. But the act of slaughtering and cleaning that elk took every bit of strength I had. I followed the directions from a book on my tablet for field dressing large animals but even after all of that I had to chop it into pieces to get it back to the cabin. I was a gory mess and the tall trees near the cabin were the stuff of nightmares where I’d hung the meat because it had grown too dark and cold to start the job of processing it.
The next day was even harder. I cut meat for hours and hung it on my make shift drying racks, placed above multiple pit fires that had burnt down to coals. I would add damp hardwood chips to the coals to create a thick smoke to help preserve the meat and keep the bugs away. I got so sick of blood and bones I had to force myself to eat the elk liver and wild onion dish I had cooked for myself. As soon as I ate it however I began to feel better. The next day I pan fried strips of the elk heart and felt even better. It took days but finally I had what I thought was enough jerky and rendered fat to get me through the winter. The elk had been huge compared to me. I easily got twice by body weight in meat alone. I planned on making something called pemmican using the dried meat and my dried fruit but not that day. I wanted to pull the last of the rose hips from the last bush in the last hedge row.
Later, rose hips gathered and the last few sun chokes drug, I started back for the cabin. It was then I made the mistake of detouring by the river to see if I could net a fish for my dinner. What I needed it for when I had all that meat I don’t know; I just felt like fish. It wasn’t the fish that was the problem however, it was that I wasn’t the only one out trying to fatten up before the show really started falling. It was already thick on the higher slopes and every night it got a few degrees colder.
I sensed rather than saw that I was being followed. I also noticed that the small animals that normally scurried in the undergrowth – even at this time of year – were quiet. I looked behind me but saw nothing; that nothing was spookier than if I had seen a squad of SEPH enforcers. My instincts told me to stay hidden in the forest but rational thought told me to flee to the openness around the lake and draw whoever it was out.
When I left the tree line I practically sprinted to the rocks that jutted out over the water. Once I had reached that perceived point of safety I turned and saw what I had felt was not a who but a what. I’d never seen a cat that big. Its body was nearly as long as I was tall and then it had a tail on top of that nearly as long as its body was. It wasn’t a cougar or a bobcat. I didn’t know what it was but I had heard stories.
During the war and the Outbreak people had let zoo animals and their pets loose rather than watch them starve to death as the infrastructure failed. Other animals had simply escaped like those on commercial hunting preserves. Most of the escapees had either died or been killed but some had adapted or interbred with local species. The thing stalking me looked like it had leopard in it but its ears had funny tufts coming out of them. The tail was long and fluffy at the end and its feet looked huge with razor sharp claws. Seeing it I was no longer a brave fighting rat but a frightened mouse staring at death.