Shivering woke me but it wasn’t my own. “Carmine?”
“We are not sleeping on this ground again,” he muttered through teeth gritted against another round of shivering.
We both got up and took care of nature but I felt bleary-eyed and sore. Nothing I hadn’t felt before or worse but it still made me want to go curl up in the cabin and rest. Carmine must have felt the same way because he said, “I’m gonna check and see if our part of the dried meat is ready; if it is I’ll carry it to the cabin and store it if you want to finish up what you were doing last night.”
I nodded. I had helped to rack the bull buffalo hide on a big eight-foot by eight-foot frame. We’d left the hair on it since we wanted it for a bed covering this winter. Ma-di, the wife of the pair of tanners, told me for us it was a good choice and she was glad to have to the two cow hides as they needed them for softer projects.
“Save the hair from the areas you trim off. The hair is dead useful. You can stuff pillows or make mattresses if you can collect enough. You can spin and then braid it into a rope strong enough for a lariat. And if you can spin and weave it can be made into a kind of fabric or turned into something called linsey-woolsey. We always have the children collect the buffalo hair when we find where they have been scratching.”
Hauling the dried meat wasn’t a problem, it was bulky but light and Carmine and I just hauled it away on our backs; that buffalo hide and the elk and deer hides was another matter. First off there was the issue that Ma-di and her husband needed their frame back. Carmine and I spent a couple of hours cutting straight, sapling trees, trimming them, and then hauling them inside the cabin. We built our own frame and then leaned it against the loft area. Next came the fun part of taking the buffalo hide off of Ma¬¬-di’s frame, hauling the hide to the cabin, and then re-lacing it to the new frame. I climbed up and down the loft ladder so many times that I started coughing again and Carmine called a halt.
“You need to drink some tea.”
Shaking my head, “I need to get this finished.”
“Carmine, it’s weird having you look after me … kinda … kinda nice … but still a little weird. I’m not used to it. I’m not trying to … to be …”
Carmine smiled, “Stop apologizing for being who you are. I still want you to come down and drink a cup of this tea. I’ll pull and lace that thing – I’ve done it before – and then when you’ve finished this then you can go back to working yourself to death. Deal?”
He made me want to smile which just added to the weirdness factor. “Deal.”
I think we were all in a rush. We could all sense the weather change coming. Carmine and I brought the elk and deer hide up to the cabin but we left them rolled up. I would have to soak them and start all over but at least all of the flesh was off. While I brought in all of my other hides and furs to hang inside the cabin – it was starting to look like taxidermy hell in there – Carmine brought wood inside so we wouldn’t have to go out in any bad weather. “This place needs a lean to instead of just that little shed off to the side. Matter of fact there’s a couple of things this place needs, starting with some chairs to go with that table we brought back; a bench if nothing else.”
I shrugged, “Don’t you think we have enough work without making more?”
“Hmph. I’ll need something to keep me busy when we get snowed in. You can play with your furs and hides and whatever else but what am I going to do?”
Then he looked at me and he went kind of still. When I figured out where his imagination had gone off to my stomach started to feel all strange and I felt the heat in my face. Nothing was said but there was an understanding between us and the word “soon” floated around making us hyper aware and sensitive.
We both went outside to see if Jerry’s group needed anything to help them along and we were both – or at least I was – surprised to see that their camp was broken down and everything was nearly all packed.
Jerry and Uncle Jack came over when they saw us. “I was just coming to find you Brother. You feel the change?”
Carmine nodded, “Rain is coming.”
“Yeah. We need to be down off this mountain road before it starts which means leaving now.”
There was a lot of hugs and back pounding and I backed up hoping they wouldn’t pull me into it. U-gu-gu just appeared behind me and said, “Carmine is a good hunter and you are a good homemaker. You need him and he needs you. Take him into your Clan and keep him. May you both be blessed by Yahweh and may your Clan grow in number and strength.”
I couldn’t remember ever having been blessed before … blessed out, yes; blessed as in being given a blessing, no. Carmine came over and smiled. “I don’t plan on giving her any reason to toss my belongings into the yard.”
U-gu-gu nodded and said, “See you don’t. It would be a bad day indeed for both our clans.” The dignified old man limped over to one of the RVs and was helped up the stairs by a young boy that even from the distance I was could see he idolized him.
We watched the caravan pull out. I looked at Carmine’s face and he was sad and it made me wonder if he had chosen to stay at the cabin for the wrong reasons. “Carmine …”
He snapped out of it fast enough and it was like he read my mind. He sighed, “I like to visit with family but I’m too Alpha of a wolf to live under Jerry and Uncle Jack’s roof for long. Although by rights it really belongs to Sally and Ma-di.”
He smiled. “The old ways of Grandfather and Sally’s mother is that things run matrilineal … through the female line of the family.”
“I know what it means … I just have a hard time seeing you as OK with that.”
He shrugged. “Actually doesn’t bother me. Male and female had their own roles and there wasn’t a whole lot of overlap. Didn’t matter whose name stuff was in so long as both people knew that the goal was forever. My great grandparents lived their whole lives that way with no problem. It was their son and then his son¸my father¸ that couldn’t live with things that way and married outside of the Nation. Sally’s first husband was native but Jack is a half-blood. Jack’s first wife was white which is why Ma-di is so light skinned.”
“Ma-di is Jack’s daughter? I didn’t know that.”
“They were estranged for a while because Ma-di’s mother couldn’t live the traditional way her mother in law wanted her to. During the Outbreak Jack gathered his children together and Sally gathered hers … Jack’s wife had divorced him and he doesn’t talk about her much – neither does Ma-di so I’m not sure if she lives or not. Sally’s husband died and she and Jack paired up. U-gu-gu actually is the one who played matchmaker. Jack is a techie and is almost as good as Asa though years older as you can see. Jerry liked him right off the bat but two of Jerry’s sisters, not so much; they thought their mother was rushing into things and on top of it they thought Jack was beneath her. They started their own family group and have a base camp not too far from Jerry’s so they generally get together in the winters. There was another brother but he died in the war. Nearly everyone in Jerry’s group is related by blood or by marriage.”
I asked a question that had been bothering me almost from the beginning. “I … look, it isn’t any of my business but where did all of the really young children come from?”
“Not bothered exactly … just … you hardly see that many little kids all in one location. In the cities they are taken away and live in crèches … sort of like orphanages I guess only really taken care of. Even of the Fertiles, being fertile doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you are going to be permitted to keep the babies you have.”
He looked like he was going to say something, stopped, and then said, “I wouldn’t mind a rug rat or two … adoption is a lot more common out here than it is back East where neither one of us would likely qualify. There’s women that do that out here as a living.”
“They … they … there are … sur … sur … surrogates … here?”
I nearly felt in a panic. It was like my secret was out and I was in danger again. “I don’t know if I would call it that exactly. These women choose it. And medicos like Sally try and track the babies so that we don’t wind up with a lot of problems down the road of brother and sister marrying. But hey, no need to hyperventilate, if you don’t like the idea of kids …”
“The kids aren’t the problem though I’m not too sure anyone would want me for a mother … it’s … it’s the idea of not being given a choice to say no.”
“Hey, don’t freak on me sweetheart. We don’t have to adopt.”
“Not me … us … I mean the surrogates. It’s not right to make someone do that.”
He finally understood. “No Gurl, they do it because they want to, not because they are being pressured to.”
I looked at him and then asked, “No harvesters or SEPH or anything like that?”
“Nope. They don’t live on every street corner, nor in every town … but I know a couple.”
It still made me uncomfortable but I nodded. “OK, but only if it is completely voluntary for the woman involved. No egg stealing or baby stealing or anything like that.”
He gave me a look and I said, “You really hate SEPH don’t you.”
I growled, “And everything that stand for. It’s wrong and stupid. They are looking for some genetic map to Utopia and it doesn’t exist because DNA is just a vessel that holds the soul, it isn’t the soul itself.”
I was immediately embarrassed when I saw Carmine’s eyebrows shoot up into his hairline. “Whoa … that sounded educated.”
“Don’t. It’s not funny. I know I’m a street rat …”
“Nope. You’re my Saloli and I’ve teased you enough … and kept you out in this cold. And what is that you’re doing to your hands?”
“Wrapping them in strips of fabric. I’ll make some mittens when the furs are finished.”
He looked aggravated. “I should have thought. You don’t have any gloves. Here, take mine.”
I shook my head refusing. “They’d just fall off. Besides this way I can feel to pick up acorns.”
“What’s that got to do with … wait, what do you mean pick up acorns.”
“Bina showed me how to use acorns and I wanted to gather baskets of them before the rain starts.”
“Don’t suppose I can talk you out of it.”
I looked at him and he laughed. “Well, sounds like a fine idea even if it is getting cold as blue blazes. Not much time for anything else anyway and we can sit in front of the fire and crack what we need as we need them. Can store them up in the loft in baskets as soon as we dry them off. I think I know where we can get hickory nuts at the same time and check the fish trap and I might have a surprise for you. The boys mentioned it while we were on the hunt and I set a trap out yesterday before coming back from the hunt.”
Carmine wound up using the solar wagon to help us transport our finds back to the cabin before it got dark. We found not just hickory but black walnuts that the squirrels had somehow overlooked.
“It wasn’t too far from here that the cat and I went into the river,” I reminded Carmine.
“Which probably explains why there’s still nuts on these trees.”
I was trying to figure out the connection when he explained what he meant. “Big cat needs lots of food. I can’t say for sure but I bet the cat had exhausted most of the small prey in this vicinity and when you came along it was too good of an opportunity for the beast to turn away from.”
“Don’t care,” I muttered. “Just don’t want it to happen again.”
My coughing became increasingly aggravating and because of that I began to feel irritable. Carmine noticed and said, “OK, this is enough. We’ll be cracking nuts and acorns from now ‘til doomsday as it is. Let’s check the trap line and then head back to the cabin to unload.”
The trap line caught three coyotes. Carmine wasn’t happy. “This was not what I was after.” He sighed again. “Well, I’ll make … whoa … will you look at that.”
“What is it … an antelope?”
“Pronghorn. Now we know what the coyote were after. This is someone’s old basement or root cellar. I’ve been through this area nearly every day and never even saw this.” “This” was a hole in the ground. The pronghorn fell in when it collapsed.
Carmine climbed down and came out with the pronghorn. He looked at me and asked, “You up for doing another hide?”
“Sure, why not?” I smiled. Some One was watching out for us again.
“This one isn’t very big … a juvenile … which is probably why it got caught. Usually they are more sure-footed. And there’s some jars and stuff down in here, old ones from the look of it and empty thank good ness. Give me something and I’ll try and bring out what I can. Another day we’ll come back and dig it out more and see what we can find.”
We couldn’t take the wagon near the river – too many trees in the way – so we parked and walked. “Carmine! Are you crazy?! That water is cold!”
“Yes Granny,” he chuffed.
It wasn’t funny. He was balanced on the bank and a couple of stones and pulling something up out of the water. “Eureka!”
I asked him, “What are you shouting Eureka for? You didn’t actually find gold with that contraption did you?”
So I was a little snarky and wasn’t paying a lot of attention. I turned around and the cage was right at my face and all I could see were little monsters. I yelped and just about climbed the hood of the wagon until I realized what he was holding. “Little lobsters?”
“Rusty crayfish. The boys found some yesterday and were using them to bait some fish traps but these are good all on their own. We’ll boil them for dinner and with some antelope steaks have us a feast. I don’t know about you but I’ve had just about all of the buffalo I can stand for a day or two; was hoping for a rabbit or two but what we’ve got is nothing to sneeze at or take for granted. This is probably the last time we’ll get to do this so easily if the weather is really going to turn sour on us.”
And the weather was definitely turning sour. We hurried back to the cabin and had just taken the last of the nuts and acorns into the cabin when I felt the first wet drop. “Here it comes Carmine.”