Alfred Hints Around

I follow one of Alfred’s glances to the bar of L & L pub. I see another of the farmers pushes his stool back from Ralph’s bar. “I’m out. Looks like you emptied my pockets again, Ralph. See you tomorrow.”

Ralph laughs. “We aim to please. Thank you, Derrick.”

Derrick pats his other two comrades on the back and heads to the door. He walks into the calm darkness beyond the door. Silence falls on the two guys at the bar until one compliments Ralph’s beer. Then, their conversation turns to whatever news they have heard recently.

Alfred and I do not feel the wind as strongly as we did earlier when Derrick leaves. Hopefully, that means Derrick will have a more pleasant walk or ride home. Alfred grimaces and shivers at the man’s exit though. Alfred leans over the table. “All I have said is that the Burbanks are being successful at the moment.” Alfred sighs and leans back in his chair. “So, how do the farmers you visited keep their farms going?”

My eyes dart between Alfred and the now closed door of the pub. “I think the small focus of the farms keep it going. They aren’t worried about growth, so they just keep planting the same fields with exactly enough for those living in the community. Are you anticipating Joseph and Catherine having some issues?”

Alfred waves away my question this time. “But surely the community has fluctuations. Some people leave and others die, right? How do they adjust the planting when one doesn’t know what might happen in a given year?”

Now, it’s my turn to raise an eyebrow. There is some trouble, I suspect. Well, I can only keep going for now. “The community does have visitors every now and again. I mean I spent a week there. I guess some of the family members visit too. So, they could just use those left-overs to feed the visitors. Plus, they do have some excellent storage to preserve produce. This is a very stable community. There’s very little turn over.”

Alfred shakes his head. “Based on what I’ve seen these past years, there’s no way to be that precise about planting. Even if you manage to know exactly what seeds will sprout, you still have to figure that some will not see the end of the growing season.”

I shake my head leaning it back a bit. “I don’t know about that. I saw rows of produce which looked laid out as they have been for many years. I didn’t see any variation in the planting from years past. The leader of the community linked this very directly with the prayer cycle that they have. He sounded like even the planting is done according to which prayers are said. Maybe they just have a very detailed set of experience built up? Do the Burbanks’ not monitor their yields?”

Alfred jabs a hand into the table. “Of course, they do. They track each breed of plant and its performance in the field. However, weather remains tough to predict and getting water and fertilizer out to the plants is difficult. They always calculate for a certain percentage of loss in the fields. The trade deals have a lot to do with this. I suppose the difference of having outside goals to reach changes the equation. I just don’t see how that farm you visited could survive without calculating for such loss.”

I take another drink from my glass. “I don’t know that. They simply showed me a very particular way of going about their work. Everything looked measured and predicted down to which seed was planted at what time in which field. They have been at this a while.”

Alfred points at me. “So, have Joseph and Catherine Burbanks. They learned their trade from their father. Papa Burbanks allowed them to work on the farms from the earliest age, so they should know what to do by now. They still have crop loss though. Wait, maybe the rapid expansion is part of the problem. You may be right. If this community has farmed the exact same plot of land for many years, they may have just learned what needed to be done. They haven’t expanded the area they till, have they?”

I look toward the ceiling. “That may be a fair point. The leader told me that they have kept things at the current size for several generations. I suppose that such a consistent plot of land would enable them to be a bit more deliberate in what they do. If the land is that predictable, surely the rest of the work becomes repetitious. Much like everything else they do is just repeating the previous work.”

Alfred nods. “Now, that makes some sense. They have just done the same thing for so long that it might work like that. I suppose my experience with the Burbanks’ growth has changed my perspective from when I was working with Papa Burbanks.”

Into The World

“I just don’t remember where I put it.” A woman squeaks as she scrambles around her bedroom.

Leonard stands in the doorway. “Well, you’re lucky these old car garages are pretty small. Those water jugs shouldn’t be hard to find. Did you look under your bed, Emma?”

Emma dives beside her bed. “Oh, look here they are. I don’t know why I keep putting things there. I meant to leave them out last night, but I guess this is just force of habit.”

Leonard enters the bedroom and grabs the jugs. “That’s fine. Get the rest of your pack together. You might want to bring a few more rags. I’m sure there will be much to wipe down. Plus, the camp members could bandage some wounds with them. I’m going to fill the jugs and check on Chuck.”

Emma rushes over and hugs her dad. “Thanks for your help. I’m sure I can manage from here. Is Chuck even up yet?”

Leonard tosses an “I don’t know” over his shoulder as he moves away from Emma.

Leonard walks through the courtyard between the former garages used as bedrooms. Leonard set up this courtyard for flowers and plants. He thought the family could grow some of their supplies. Chuck’s bedroom stands at the back end of the place that they call home. Leonard calls out to no one in particular. “We have to remember to pick some of these tomatoes tonight. Those plants are looking heavy.”

Chuck spins on his heels inside his bedroom. “What was that?”

Leonard shakes his head. “Oh, nothing. I was just looking at our plants. We need to pick some stuff tonight. Got everything you want for today? I expect some electrical tools will come in handy if we make it to midtown.”

Chuck grasps his pack on his bed and gazes into it. “Yeah, I got those tools and some for repairing walls. I’m not taking too many of the heavy tools since we will have a long walk.”

Leonard smirks at his son. “That’s a good plan, Son. I like the way you think. Plus, we may not even get there.”

Chuck rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I thought of that too. I’m planning for the job that we know of, but I threw in some other things too.” Chuck zips up his pack and flings it on his back. “Well, I’m ready. Would you like some help filling those jugs while we wait for Emma?”

Leonard hands him one of the jugs. “I would appreciate that. You take this one.”

They leave Chuck’s bedroom. One stone path through the plants leads Leonard and Chuck straight through the garden. They end up at a glass door. The room on the other side was once the reception area for the garage. When Leonard first came here, he tore out the reception area and built a kitchen. There were already some gas lines run and some sinks. That made the work a little easier. Leonard taught Chuck how to repair things by having Chuck work on the family kitchen.

Leonard and Chuck each take a sink and begin filling the water jugs. The door slides open. “Oh, there you boys are. I heard y’all moving through the garden, but I couldn’t figure out where you went. I’m ready now. I did pack some extra rags, Dad.”

Leonard shuts off the tap just before overflowing the jug. He puts the jug in an outside pocket of his pack. “That’s good. Now, I am thinking we walk down to midtown today. It will be a long walk, but we should make it by late afternoon.”

Chuck finishes with his water jug. “That sounds good. Those people will likely welcome our help after last night.”

Leonard nods at Chuck and turns to Emma. “Good. But, let’s not worry too much about it. If we find other people, that’s fine too.”

Emma smiles at them. “I know some folks had a rough night, but there’s people here that need help too.”

They form up in the former reception area with Leonard out front. Emma follows him out the door into the street. Chuck pulls the door closed and locks it. “You know, I don’t know why I continue to lock this door. It’s not like people wouldn’t just break the glass if they decide to come in.”

Leonard and Emma laugh as the group sets off down the street.

After a few steps, another group turns onto their block. The other group is small too. Four men walk toward Leonard and his children. They carry automatic weapons. Body armor covers the oldest two. One of them waves at Leonard. “Hey, does anyone live on this street? Or, is it deserted like the rest of this place?”

Leonard puts a hand on Emma’s shoulder. “We haven’t seen anybody else here. I figure this place is as lonesome as the rest. I mean look around, where would you build a camp in these parts?”

The other group’s spokesman glances behind them. “Y’all been traveling long? Doesn’t look like you’re carrying much.”

Chuck looks the man up and down. “Nah, we just left our camp this morning and haven’t been walking long. We’re out scouting for supplies. Do you know of anything nearby?”

The spokesman shrugs. “Nope, we haven’t seen anything but you this morning. We keep hearing about this group of ‘seconds’ that are supposed to be here.”

Leonard looks back down the street. “Well, we can’t help you there. What are these ‘seconds’ about?”

The spokesman looks at his comrades and nods. “I can’t believe you ain’t heard of them. They go around helping other groups with repairs and supplies. No one seems to know a thing about them though.”

Leonard glances at his children and nudges Chuck. “Sounds like some good people. Well, good luck finding them. Do you need some help finding them?”

The other members flank their spokesman. The spokesman laughs. “Nope. We can find them and solve that problem.”

The spokesman leads his group on down the street. Leonard watches them for a moment before leading his family to the end of the block.

Leonard turns his head back down the street as they turn to go toward midtown. That other group lingers for a moment outside his home before disappearing down the street.

Talking Business

Alfred drains the last drops of his beer and calls Rebecca over to the table in the back corner of L & L pub. “Well, Edward, I am doing just fine at the Burbanks’ farms. Everything is growing. My problem now is that I need a refill.”

The only remaining customers are at the bar. L & L has quietened down since I arrived. A few hangers-on talk about the rains and the cold effecting crops at the bar. The fire in the middle of the wall next to our table burns softly. Rebecca glides over to our table. “Yes, gentlemen, looks like you need another round.”

My eyes stay on Alfred. He keeps saying that everything is fine. Maybe in some ways things are fine. His answers sound forced though. They sound like the automatic answers that he would give anyone.

Alfred smiles at Rebecca. “Right on. We would like another round. Would you, please, put this one on my tab? My friend here has been traveling around. He’s thirsty and out of money, I’m sure.” Alfred winks at me. Rebecca goes off to get our drinks.

Alfred focuses back on me. “So, about these farmers – you say that there is not a single woman in the group?”

I nod. “That’s right. The group is all men. They rotate job assignments. Everyone works all tasks at different times of the year.” I slouch in my chair a bit. Alfred still looks uncomfortable talking about his work. Maybe he will warm up in a bit.

Alfred shakes his head. “I don’t understand. I get the sense that there are a lot of people there. How do they grow if they do not have generations?”

I look at the table and blink for a moment. “People just show up. Others learn of the community, somehow. They don’t really promote themselves. Some heard a rumor about the community and came to investigate. Others had a friend that joined and came to visit the friend. Another group sounded like travellers who stumbled upon the community. All of these just never left.”

Rebecca returns. “Here are your drinks. Enjoy, guys.”

We thank Rebecca. Alfred raises an eyebrow in my direction. “They must be trading the produce of the farms then. I mean that’s how Joseph and Catherine Burbanks attract people to their farms. Folks must hear of the farms you visited that way.”

I shake my head. “No, I’m telling you. The farm is entirely self-sufficient. They grow what they need. Then, they prepare what they grow. No outside dealings that I can see. But you say Joseph and Catherine’s farms are getting bigger?”

Alfred shrugs. “Hang on. I am still trying to understand how this works. This farm you visited expands their operations and stays in existence just by people showing up? How does that work?”

I laugh. Alfred may not even be hearing my questions at the moment. “All I saw was a group of men. They told me their stories of wandering up and staying. None of them mentioned hearing about the community at a market. The leader said they grow what they eat. That is the extent of their work. They are simply sustaining themselves.”

Alfred narrows his eyes. “Okay, the group collects men. These men communicate with their families. Word about the community then spreads that way. They get people interested by people reporting what happened to brothers and friends.”

I nod. “That does seem like a good appraisal. I noticed each man had a general stack of letters in his room. I suppose that enough happy letters back home might draw others who are discontented with their lives.”

Alfred shrugs. “Maybe. It seems like an odd way to run a business. I don’t think Joseph and Catherine would have grown as quickly without the trade deals. That seems to be where a lot of our outsiders come from. They see our produce at market, and they come to see who grows such stuff.” Alfred rolls his lips together and glances from side to side.

Maybe Alfred is worried about other people hearing what he might say about the Burbanks’ farms. I don’t imagine the couple guys at the bar even care. Ralph and Rebecca certainly aren’t going to repeat anything. Still, I could understand him being slow to speak about the farms. He might have some negative things to say. The situation at the farms could pressure him to keep his mouth shut. I wonder what would explain such conditions. Still, I am glad the farms sound like they are doing well.

Edward’s Trip

I take a deliberate drink of my whiskey. Alfred refuses to discuss how the farms are going. I suppose one story wouldn’t hurt for now. My pipe goes out, so I pull the one I smoked before dinner at L & L pub from my pack. I get it packed and relight it.

“My trip out East went very well. I got a letter from another friend.”

Alfred gasps with a chuckle. “You have other friends.”

I just shake my head. “Right, moving on. I visited this group of farmers. I traveled for fifteen days to get there. I was blessed because the weather was much warmer then. The sun shone the whole way. I was delayed a bit because the flat plains around that farm really struck me. The shift from our hills to those plains was fascinating. The world just leveled out. There was still plenty of trees for the first couple days after the hills. Then, the land just became prairie. A few sparse trees remained, but mostly the plants were just shrubs and weeds. I had the opportunity to see a whole different set of plant life.”

Alfred rolls his eyes. “Edward, I know the scenery is important to you, but others of us just want to know what you encountered with the people.”

I shrug. “You’re right of course. You know how easily I get distracted especially when the plants are that new to me.”

Alfred laughs and rolls a finger in the air. “Yes, yes.”

I look back at the fire. “Anyway, I arrive at the farm and talk to one of the men in the field. That’s one of the interesting things about this group. They are all men. They live in what looks like a barracks. They all have their own room in the barracks, but dining and other living spaces are all common. I heard, at some point, that the individual rooms were a new development. I think that was a wise move on their part.”

Alfred nods his head. “It certainly was. A bunch of guys all sharing the same living quarters sounds like a recipe for conflict.”

I agree with Alfred. The farmers reported that stuff just seemed tense when all the living spaces where common. “So, the first farmer leads me up to the barracks and introduces me to the leader of the group. This leader tells me all about how they manage their farms. Apparently, the farming is done in connection with a prayer cycle. They have the year divided into three parts. They have a certain work assigned for each part. The work connects to a certain set of prayers.

“Then, this leader takes me to the fields and shows me the others working. At some points throughout the day, they ring a bell. Everyone puts down what they are working on and goes to this little chapel at the back of the barracks. They read from their book and say some prayers before going right back out the door to resume their work.”

Alfred blinks at me. “So, are you telling me that they’ve attempted to marry prayer and work?”

I nod. “Yeah, that seems exactly like what they have done. The pause in the work to pray really seems to keep them focused even as they plow, pick, or plant.

“In fact, the longer I stayed the more I remembered a story that I read somewhere. Many years ago, a son of a rich family decided to abandon the mercantile life of his family. He left the city and found an isolated spot in the hills of a foreign country. I hear that he just wanted to go out alone and pray. However, many soon learned of him and flocked to see what he was doing. As a result, he grew a community around him. He never pointed to himself but kept the focus on the prayers.

“I asked the leader if he ever heard of this guy from long ago. The leader said that he had not. He was doing something new. I shrugged my shoulders at him.”

Alfred snorts with a shrug. “Yes, we all think we are reinventing the wheel.”

I laugh. “So, it would seem. I stayed there about ten days before my return trip. I enjoyed watching them live. I don’t know about their choice of isolation, but they seemed to grow in their place. So, I can’t disagree too much. How are you doing in your place?”

Alfred and Edward

Rebecca loops her arm in Alfred’s. She gracefully carries my glass in her hand while guiding Alfred to my table in the L & L pub. She smiles at Alfred. “Well, Edward, here’s your drink. I am sorry for the wait. I got distracted by this tall, dark traveller.”

I smirk back. “You are pardoned, Rebecca. I can understand what would distract you. I’m quite sure he has some interesting tales to tell. Thank you for the drink.”

I take a long puff from my pipe as Alfred sits. He yanks the chair back from the table and plops down into the seat. He falls back against the chair with his eyes closed. After he opens his eyes and gulps his beer, I incline my head toward him. “Welcome to the corner table, Alfred. I’m glad you could join me. I thought with your delay that you might have walked here. I’m glad you didn’t. How was the ride?”

Alfred shakes his head. “It was fine. Did you walk up here today?”

I nod with a smile. “I did. I just returned from the East last night, so I did not get your letter until this morning. I was very happy to see your letter. Since you haven’t written to me for a while, I thought it best to come quickly. Margaret was a great help.”

I pause to puff my pipe a bit. Alfred seizes the pause. “Margaret, eh? Does that mean that you have finally found someone crazy enough to put up with you?”

I laugh and wave the question away. “Oh no. Margaret is my housekeeper. She’s been at Lignum for about five years now. She does excellent work. She has organized my entire estate. I am fairly certain things could run smoothly without her, but I am not sure at all if I would want to know. Has it been five years?”

Alfred stares into the center of the table for a moment. “I suppose it has been that long. I cannot believe that.” He rubs his beard. “Actually, it has probably been longer than that. I do not recall you even looking for a housekeeper the last time we talked.”

I stare into the fire. “You may be right about that. I didn’t even know that I wanted a housekeeper for a long time. I don’t even remember now how I heard about Margaret. I want to say that some correspondent of mine mentioned a sister being fascinated by my work, and she asked if she could help. However, I could have simply met her randomly in one of my travels. Sometimes people just ask if they can help, and I try my best to find an answer to that question.”

Alfred meets my eyes again and holds his beer up for a toast. “Well, then it has certainly been too long. I hope I can begin to fix that problem. I know our schedules are a bit off, but we have to do this more often. How was your walk then?”

I clink my glass against Alfred’s. “It went much better than I expected. I ran into a bit of rain last night on my return trip. So, I anticipated the road being difficult because of mud. But, the road was dry and solid. I suppose the sun baked most of it off today, and there were obviously many other travellers out today. I can confirm that there was a large crowd here earlier. How are things on the farm?”

Alfred takes a measured breath. “Oh, they are getting along. I bet you enjoyed the sun today then. I know your cloak is good, but the rains brought some definite colder weather.”

I raise an eyebrow at Alfred. I think he is avoiding talk of the farm. Well, that will do for now. “Yes, the sun helped the journey. I don’t think I could have done very well without it. Who knows the cold may have even sped my progress?”

Alfred lowers his head and shakes it while still looking me in the eye. “You and I both know that you crawled up here. Did the rains last night even speed you home?”

I laugh. “You bring up a very good point. No, they did not. I got distracted by some still flowering weeds. I thought it amazing that such things were still growing. I know some plants can thrive in strange conditions, but flowers in January look odd. So, I took a moment in the rain. How are Joseph and Catherine getting along?”

Alfred laughs. “Of course, you stopped in the rain. I wish I had your patience with things. So, you took a trip to the East, huh? How did that go?”

Alfred Settles In

Carl paces to the door. “Excuse me, Sir. I was just leaving.”

Alfred never acknowledges Carl. Alfred just turns around and opens the door again. Carl moves a bit quicker toward the door. His eyes never leave Alfred. “Thank you.”

Alfred snaps back around to the bar. Alfred hauls himself to the bar next to the three remaining farmers at L & L pub. His eyes never leave the floor as he moves. Rebecca hesitates, sets my drink back on the bar, and gives him the same enthusiastic hug that she gave me. “Welcome, Alfred. It has been too long. I do hope everything is going well for you. Edward is waiting for you at his usual table.”

Alfred rolls his head over to see Rebecca. A smile ghosts across his face. “Thank you, Rebecca, for your warm welcome. You certainly know how to warm an old man’s soul. I tied my horse up on the rail to the porch. Is that okay?”

Rebecca’s hands flick out from her sides with palms up. “Of course. That’s where you usually tie up a horse.”

Alfred’s eyes close while he nods. “Thank you. Ralph, I would like a mug of beer, please.” Ralph spins on his heels and grabs a mug. Alfred shakes his head. “Do not worry about the vintage tonight. I doubt I could tell you the difference.”

Ralph turns back to Alfred. “That’s fine, Alfred. Why don’t you go have a seat, and Rebecca will bring your drink to you?”

Alfred finally turns his head to me. His eyes focus on me for a second. He blinks turning his head back and forth to take in the whole bar. He focuses on the fire for a moment. Alfred turns back to me. I give a quick hand wave. He genuinely smiles for the first time. His shoulders drop with a single nod. He even chuckles a bit. “Ah, Ralph, you have the most comfortable place in this whole world. I’m glad to see my friend waited on me. It took me longer to leave the farms than I expected. Blessedly for me, the roads were in better shape than one might think. If you could spare some feed, my mare would gladly take some. I know you are not in the animal business, but I would gladly pay for it.”

Rebecca puts a hand on Alfred’s shoulder. “Yes, we can take care of Gilda. She had a hard ride I suppose. Let Ralph get that drink poured, and I will bring it over to you and Edward.”

Alfred shrugs. “That will be fine. How is business treating you?”

Rebecca glances at Ralph and shakes her head. “You just missed everyone. We had a packed house about an hour ago.” Her voice gets louder. “I suppose your buddy ran them all off. You know he can clear a room like few others.”

Alfred laughs warmly. “Well, I’m glad you got your money before he arrived then. Yes, he does have quite the talent for creating lonely places. However, he has a calming spirit too. He can collect crowds as quickly as he can get rid of them.”

Ralph pours Alfred’s beer and hands him the mug. “That is right. I have seen him sit in that corner for hours by himself, and I have seen him entertain everyone in here. At least for a moment.”

Alfred tips his mug in my direction. “Truly, he has some gifts. Though I am not sure what you would call them.”

Rebecca laughs with a shrug. “No, I don’t think any of us want to guess at that. Still, he does seem to get by.” Rebecca throws me a wink.

“Y’all do understand that I can hear you, and I am still waiting on that whiskey.”

Rebecca slaps her palm to her forehead. “Oh, I forgot about that. Here it sits just waiting like you have done. See, Alfred, that’s those life skills we were talking about. I’m on my way, Edward. Come on, Alfred.”

Alfred Arrives

Now, this is more like it. Ralph did an excellent job as usual. The burger was cooked to perfection. Ralph and his grill are really in top form tonight. The whiskey was a bit stronger than usual. This batch must be part of the winter brew. He always adds a bit more for winter. I like that. It does a better job of keeping us warm. Or at least makes us think about the cold less. I forget which one.

I see Alfred hasn’t arrived yet. I do hope I didn’t confuse my dates again. Let me see.

“Well it looks like you didn’t have any trouble with that burger.” Rebecca appears at my table. L & L pub has quietened down since my arrival. I should have heard her approach, but I suppose that Alfred weighs too heavily on my mind. I do hope he is okay.

“Yes, Rebecca, I did have a problem. The burger disappeared. I don’t know what happened to it. You sat it down, and then it was just gone.”

Rebecca smiles and nods her head. She lets a giggle sneak out. “Well, the ketchup on your cheek says that you know exactly what happened.”

I laugh while cleaning myself up with the napkin. “Observant as ever. Good eye.”

Rebecca collects the plate and empty glass. ” Yeah, after this many years, I think I have learned a thing or two, Edward Would you like anything else? I think Ralph has a spoonful of banana pudding left.”

I push back from the table and lounge against the seat back. “I don’t think that would be a good idea. I know that you make a delightful banana pudding. I always seem to have to walk a little farther than usual after eating it though. However, I would gladly accept another glass of the winter brew whiskey.”

Rebecca smiles. “Yes, I thought you would. We are very proud of this year’s winter brew. It’s a little sweeter than last year’s. We got a little heavy handed last year just working on potency. This year we worked a little bit more on flavor. We really got closer to balance.”

I roll my empty glass as I hand it to her. “Yes, the flavor almost hid the potency though. I guess I have merely drank enough of all the seasonal mixes to tell the difference. Thank you for adding that sweetness though. I remember last year’s brew being a bit difficult to drink.”

She laughs. “We did have more than one incident over that brew. We did well to tame it a bit. I’ll be right back with that drink.”

Rebecca goes back to the bar and tells Ralph to pour another. I lean over to pull another pipe out of my pack. I grab one with a bigger bowl since I do not know when Alfred will join me. I might have a longer wait than I expected. I get the pipe lit, and Rebecca turns to bring my drink to me.

The door to the pub opens with a startling gust of wind. I feel the cold even at the back of L & L over the fire. A taller man with a white beard steps into the pub. He reaches the back of the door and slides it closed. He leans on the door a moment. He takes a deep inhale and turns to face the bar. I’m glad to see Alfred made it. He looks exhausted though. I guess he had a harder walk than I did. He comes from a busier side of the world than I do. I figured the road would be dryer coming from his direction.

Alfred turns from the door. His eyes are glazed over. I’m not even real sure that he sees the inside of the pub. The folks at the bar jolt around to see that he closed the door. They turn back to Ralph and converse among themselves that the storms must have brought the cold. One shakes his head. “Well, that’s likely a warning to me that I need to get home. No one likes a cold walk. Thanks, Ralph, we’ll see you next trip.”

Ralph’s eyes never move from the newcomer. Alfred lingers at the door for another moment. Ralph acknowledges the man at the bar. “Yeah, Carl, your wife is probably wondering where you are anyway. You know she worries about you when you’re out too late.”

Carl chuckles and lays his money on the bar. “If that’s not enough, I’ll settle up tomorrow.” The other men at the bar say goodbye to their friend as he starts in Alfred’s direction.

Still Awake

The rubble stretches for miles in every direction. Somehow though, most of the street lights still come on every night. Generators manage to light the skyscrapers that remain standing farther downtown.

What’s even more impressive is the return of the night sky. Stars burst through the electric haze. The moon spans to full and shines down on Weedsdale.

One man sits on a rooftop staring up at those stars. Leonard has a candle lit on a box and a book opened before it.

A door opens at the other end of the roof. A man steps onto the roof. “Hey, Dad. Couldn’t sleep tonight? Sure is a warm one.”

Leonard slowly closes the book. He turns with a smile to his son. “The breeze tonight is pretty nice, Chuck. It breaks up the heat well enough. I thought I might come up here and enjoy a bit of quiet.”

Chuck shakes his head with a smile. He walks the length of the roof and sits down on a barrel next to Leonard. “Well, surely, you heard the gun fire a couple blocks away?”

Leonard nods slowly. “Yeah, I did. It sounded like a light skirmish though. I didn’t hear too much going on. Didn’t sound all that exciting. I guess I’m just used to the background noise at this point.”

Chuck looks out over the decaying city. “I guess that is one outcome of all this. I don’t think this should be normal.” Chuck spreads his arms over the landscape of fractured buildings.

Leonard smacks his lips. “I certainly never imagined raising you and Emma in this kind of place. Amazing how things can turn so quickly.”

Chuck glances back to his father. “It certainly is. This is all my sister and I have ever known. I don’t even think we believe some of your stories about you and mom.”

Leonard pats Chuck’s knee. “I’m sure it’s hard to believe. It seems like a lifetime ago to me.”

Before Chuck can respond, explosions burst through the air. Leonard and Chuck look deeper into downtown. The few remaining windows in a skyscraper shatter outward. They hear the sound of walls falling from floors they cannot see. People yell instructions and call for friends and family.

Leonard lowers his head. “There’s some more lives ruined by all this. I don’t know how people continue to live in those big buildings. They just look like nightly targets of these bombing raids.”

Chuck points a finger in the direction of the building. “Look at the precision though. Whoever is dropping these bombs must know where to strike. They never hit the buildings. They just hit near enough to cause surface damage. It’s like the plan is just to make as much noise as possible.”

Leonard shrugs. “You may be right. I just know it’s going to be a long night for those folks.”

Chuck continues to gaze out at the city. “I don’t know anymore. Maybe they have adjusted to this life too? Maybe those folks have a plan for this kind of thing. Seems like a plan would be necessary to live in those buildings.”

“I hope you’re right, Chuck. That would certainly make these bombings less disruptive.” Leonard slaps Chuck on the back. “Well, how did your watch go? Anything happening around here?”

Chuck shakes his head. “I didn’t see anything happening here. The streets are quiet. Doesn’t seem like anyone is close to home tonight.”

Leonard bobs his head. “I suppose that’s a good thing. At least, we will be able to sleep. I’m sure Emma will have a plan for tomorrow after we tell her about this.”

Chuck laughs. “I bet she does. Do you think we could even make it that far tomorrow? That looks about midtown, so I’m not even sure we could walk that far.”

Leonard rubs his chin. “Oh, I bet we could make it, if we went straight there. The problem will be getting distracted by all the people nearby.”

Chuck nods. “Yeah, there will be plenty of folks between here and there. I’m sure we can find something to do tomorrow.”

Leonard flicks a thumb back toward the door at the other end of the roof. “You know Emma will get us into something. I’m glad she set us on this path though. I think we have made some difference in all this mess.”

Chuck’s eyes widen. “Do you think so? All we hear is how silly we are for doing it. They are just so convinced of who is doing these things. I’m not sure we are getting through to them.”

Leonard nods. “You may be right. It certainly gets harder to keep going some days. They all seem to have the answer for sure. They keep fighting each other as the gunshots tonight show. I wonder what would happen if they realized no one was winning this war. Maybe they would just help each other so that we could get by as a city.”

Chuck shrugs. “Yeah, I know that is what we hope will happen, but I just don’t know if it will. There’s a lot of commitment to the war out there. Still, I don’t think there is another option for us. I think we have to keep doing what we are doing. I want to show them that they are not forgotten, you know?”

Leonard leans his head back with closed eyes. “I believe there is some change happening with each group we help. So, yeah, I agree we just have to keep doing what we can. I just think we have to be making some difference. They are our neighbors after all.”

Chuck stands up. “Well, I have to get back to my rounds. You should really try to get some sleep. It’s likely to be a long day tomorrow.”

Leonard thanks Chuck for the advice as Chuck moves back toward the door. Leonard pulls his book back out when he hears the door slam.

Reaching the Pub

L & L Pub

Okay, that wasn’t so bad. The road is still in good shape. I am glad to be at the top of the hill though. The shadows begin to grow more than makes me comfortable while travelling. I suppose that’s Margaret’s concern rubbing off on me. Bless her, she does what she can.

L & L pub consistently surprises me. There it sits on top of this hill. It just appears as I crest the hill. As soon as I start thinking that I have passed the last of civilization, here is L & L. The little wooden building just materializes in its perch. Ralph takes good care of the building. The white wash catches either rising or, in this case, the setting sun brilliantly. I even asked one time if Ralph changed the color outside. He assured me he had not. He says the sun catches the building just right on occasion. The sun certainly has this evening. If it weren’t for the cold, I might have this meeting with Alfred outside. However, I don’t think freezing is a worthwhile plan.

Ralph recently took care of the yard too. I hope he didn’t do that this morning. Cutting after yesterday’s rains would be a big chore for anyone even Ralph. Still, the grass looks as good as Margaret does with mine.

I press open the wood door, and Rebecca runs to me and gives me a hug. “Welcome, Edward. It’s so nice to see you this evening. Are you stopping here for the night, or is someone joining you?”

I take a step back from her. “Both actually. I plan on being here for most of the night, and I am meeting my old friend, Alfred. How are you and your husband doing?”

Rebecca glances over her shoulder. “We are great. Look around. We have an almost full house, and Ralph is flinging drinks and food like no one will be here tomorrow.”

Sure enough, Rebecca is correct. Ralph doesn’t even look up to see me come in. And, all but one of the tables have a person at them. There are even a few at the bar. These look mostly like farmers visiting after working in their fields. They are covered in mud for the most part. They certainly had their work cut out for them today. I suppose the fields wanted tilling after such rains. I can only imagine the weeds that would grow. On the other hand, perhaps tilling is easier with a bit of water soaked ground than sun baked dirt. I wouldn’t know.

Rebecca draws me back from my wanderings. “So, I haven’t seen Alfred in a while. I guess the last time you met him?”

I squint my eyes and look around. “Yeah, I know the last time I saw him was here. I hoped he would’ve visited y’all since then though. He told me about taking a position to help his niece and nephew with their farms the last time. I guess that takes more time than he thought. Truly, that is a shame. He helped Papa Burbanks for many years. I was kind of hoping that Alfred would be as able to step back from things as Papa did. Doesn’t look like that is the case.” Rebecca and I walk toward the bar as we talk.

“Well, look what the wind blew in. How did the trip east go?” Ralph finally looked up when I put some money on the bar.

I shrug. “It went well. Thank you for asking. I visited a group of farmers there, and they had some interesting ways of dealing with the land around them. They fascinated me by how they appeared to cooperate with the land. Plus, they had a very good beer, so I enjoyed my visit. How are things here?”

Ralph laughs like I have just asked the most unexpected question. “I have a full house. I am doing great. So, what are you having?”

I nod with a grin. “Yes, you certainly have some folks here. I will take some of your homemade whiskey and my usual burger. I’m going to go to your remaining table over there in the corner.”

Rebecca slaps my back. “Ha, the universe must have known you were coming. Everyone here at the bar made a move in that direction before settling here at the bar.” Everyone in the row raises an eyebrow in her direction. She continues, “I’ll bring it right over when Ralph finishes with it.”

Ralph nods and spins back to the grill. “Shouldn’t take me long, buddy.”

So, I pace over to the table and sit in the chair against the back wall. I take my pack off my back and open the pouch on the top. Fantastic, Margaret remembered to pack my pipe and tobacco as well. I reckon then I will just sit here and enjoy a bowl before my food and Alfred gets here.

To The Pub

I leave Margaret in the study. I would like her to take a break. She will have all day to work on whatever she planned to do. As a result, I hope she would sit there in the study and relax for a minute. I arranged three groups of chairs around the place. I even put a couch in one of them. She could stare out at the woods and even take a nap on that sofa. Likely, however, she will straighten the desk and go back to the laundry. I pray she will be blessed and watched over while I am gone.

I walk back through the house. Lignum Estate was comfortably built. I should really spend some more time in these other rooms. The wood floors and dark walls are just warm and inviting. Still, I find myself spending much of my time in that study. Plus, going to the study is easier because one hallway connects the front door to the study. Well, here I go again.

Margaret was right. It is chilly out here. I should stop and find my cloak. Ahh, that is much better. I like this thing. I think the green blends into many of the surroundings through which I pass. It has an excellent hood on it, and the part where I put my arms through is separated a little from the part that covers you.

Now, I put my map and compass in my bag, but I hope I don’t need them. Since I am walking the main road, I should just be able to follow it. It should bring me straight to L & L.

My front yard always reminds me of a pasture. I should fence part of it in and get some cows. The yard runs all the way to the road. The grass always looks great. I don’t know who Margaret found to take care of it. Although, now that I think about it: Margaret does it herself. I’ve often wondered what’s in that barn off to the Western side before the tree line. She might even have a horse in there to help her with the yard. I should really ask about that one day. I chuckle a bit at these thoughts. I know full well that as long as it looks like it does; then I will never ask about it.

The couple of houses here are very well spaced. There is a good half mile between all of us. Plus, we are on the same side of the road. I guess the forest just became too thick on the other side of the road. The builders decided not to deal with that. I don’t blame them.

The road leads back into the woods after the last house. I am grateful for my cloak and the sun today. I would really be having a hard time with this hike otherwise. I am not a fast mover. I like to take in the surroundings, so I move slowly. The cold would hit me hard if the sun wasn’t shining as brightly as it is.

At least, the road dried from the rains. I expected a rougher journey through a bit of mud today. The road is nicely packed though. In fact, I wonder who else has been travelling today. There must have been many people crossing through these trees today. Otherwise the road would be mush. This is almost pleasant ground today though. Such a road is a blessing when one is in a bit of a hurry.

If I remember precisely, this first intersection leads to Horturba. Normally, I would go by there and see what, if anything, has changed. My suspicion is that nothing has changed. Which is typically true. Though every now and again some new addition to their market appears. Most of the merchants now have shops there, so it has come a long way since just being changeable stalls. However, I have to keep moving today.

All right, I am making great time today. The sun has just tipped past its crest. I reach the intersection before the stream. I don’t recall off hand to which village this intersection leads. Not that it matters today. I need to keep moving. I am only about half way to L & L. However, I think I will take a break when I reach the stream to eat Margaret’s lunch.

There I go. I was right. The stream is more out of its banks than usual. Look at all that brown water. I wonder what all washed down from the hills around here. I wager there are some farmers who are very unhappy with this development. I ask that not many crops were lost.

Now, let’s see what Margaret packed her traveler. Oh, looks like sandwiches. I always like sandwiches on short hikes. They just seem fitting really. They do not take long to eat, are tasty, and feel a little bit like home even in these wilds. Margaret really knows what she is doing. That was a fantastic lunch. I must get moving again. Just one more hill to the pub.