The remaining days of July were full of work for both of us. For Gid it was going over the cords of wood to check for bugs and rot to separate out what to burn outside and what could be brought inside. The skins of several large rattlers now adorn the side of the house and he says they will make good trade because of their size. He has caught a few smaller ones as well and said that I might keep those for trimming on the new boots I am making.eH:; To add to the wood pile he has found several trees that came down in a storm a season before and cut them into manageable bits for the oxen to drag back to the homesite. During breaks from wood gathering and caring for the small plots of amaranth and buckwheat he planted, he started the task of cleaning out the irrigation troughs and making repairs that he’d been putting off so that next season we could grow a garden rather than be completely reliant on forest forage. He came back almost every day with something for the stew pot and at night he would work on the resulting hides and furs.
For me the work focused on food and cleaning but primarily on food as the indoor cleaning could wait for times that it was too rough or cold to be outdoors. Being dragged around the barter roads in the caravan did not leave much opportunity for food storage and it took dredging memories from the ways of our village for me to set my feet on the most efficient path. In the caravan we bought, we sold. Spring, Summer, and Fall we ate and sometimes well. Winter was lean and sometimes we came close to starving no matter my efforts. Cleanliness was a haphazard experiment at best that depended on where we were and who the customers we were serving. Each stop had its own requirements and woe to any that disregarded Wash and Aunt Giselle’s dictates. Here at the cabin it was suddenly my responsibility to see that we ate … and preferably ate well. But it was also my responsibility to see that we didn’t starve come the Winter and early Spring. I had no one to tell me what to do and when. I had no one to really help me with the planning beyond Gid and he had enough work of his own. I felt by turns fearful, humble … and strong and powerful. My walk with the Creator has grown because now instead of bemoaning my fate and asking for stuff for me, I tell him how thankful I am and when I ask for things it is more in the line of wisdom so that I can be the woman that Gid needs me to be. I’m also happy that God has seen fit to reveal more and more of the bounty He has placed in this protected area; I’ve yet to spend a morning that is unproductive or come home barehanded.
Exploring within sight of the cabin was the norm but as Gid grew more confident in my abilities to look out for myself – or trust that God would bring me back safely to his care without getting into scrapes – he accepted that I needed to go further afield to take advantage of what God had blessed the land with but still he set a boundary and said I was not to cross it. He showed me the way to the stream and I discovered on my own the quiet side pools that were to be found. In these quiet pools of water I was happy to find what locals called arrowhead though some called it by other names like duck potato or marsh potato. As it was so plentiful it became our principle starch. You gather the tubers by wading in and digging them out of the mud with your toes. Once the tubers escape the tangle of their roots they float to the surface making them easier to harvest. Gid caught me more than once with my skirts bunched around my waist and that seemed to please him.
Food gathering was for the morning, as soon as I had fixed Gid a hearty morning meal. I usually packed him a midday munch at the same time. Then we’d go our own way … him to his man work and me to my woman work. At mid-day I’d come back to the cabin with whatever I had gathered. Some would be for that day’s meal but the rest I processed for saving for later. Sometimes Gid would be there and sometimes not. My afternoons were devoted to processing food and, what little spare time after that, to cleaning.
Our sleeping chamber I tackled first, then the kitchen and pantry though neither was as clean as Mam and the Sisters would have demanded. I spent twice as much time moving things so that I could clean as I spent on the actual cleaning. I was amazed at the number of glass jars and crocks and clay pots that filled every nook and cranny in the cabinets. Even more, it took my breath away to find real cast iron pots and skillets and the kind of kitchen tools I imagine you would only find in a rich man’s home. There were wooden trenchers, and utensils for everyday but also clay fired dishes and metal utensils for days you wished to make a bit more special. When I did finally manage to empty every cabinet and drawer so that I could give an inventory to Gid I counted more crockery than even the church had had at its disposal during feast times. Then I found in a dark and out of the way room below stairs that Gid said had always been called the “locker room” - though he couldn’t tell me why it had been called that – basket upon basket of antique crockery that was so fine and thin you could see the shadow of your hand through it if you held it to the sun. With it were wooden boxes of what we discovered after a little rubbing to be silverware and other fancy serving pieces.
“Where did this all come from?” I said looking around and trying not to show my consternation for Gid to see.
Gid shrugged as if the cavern of treasure concerned him not the least. “Uncle Fid said during the Dark Days and right afterwards some members of the family became salvagers. I guess all those that survived those days did it to some extent, some people just made a better living at it than others. The family journals tell some tales but I don’t know whether they are tall tales or true tales and frankly don’t care.” In remembered irritation he said, “You should have seen all the compost I had to haul out of here and burn. If you think this place is still wall to wall inventory you would not have believed your eyes before I started cleaning it out. Rotted, rusted flotsam that hadn’t worked since who knows when if ever. To this day I can’t tell you what purpose some of it was created for and neither could Uncle Fid the few times I asked as a boy. A lot of old electricals piled in some of the rooms upstairs and crushed by the weight of what was on top and by the canker of age.” He shuddered. “If you want this then I’ll haul the rest of it up but it don’t seem that practical to me.”
Knowing he was right I said, “Mostly I need to clean the room out to get rid of what is broken and to free up space for storage if we are truly going to use the below stairs. Did you know that some of the rooms down there have windows, or places for windows? They’ve been paneled over and things piled in front of them. It is on the side of the house …”
He nodded before I could finish. “On the steep side of the house. Aye. They were blocked off in my great great grandparents’ time if not before. Can’t keep track of the generations. Long time ago used to be people that the Brotherhood ran out of the cities turned raider and used the old maps to locate homes to try and salvage from. They didn’t care much if there were people still living in them either from the accounting given by the village elders and oldsters like Uncle Fid.”
I decided that below stairs would have to wait no matter how I wished to move the supplies still stacked higglety-pigglety in our sleeping chamber and in the front foyer. The kitchen and main living floor was more than enough to keep me busy for a while, especially after a full morning of foraging. I brought in burdock roots, yarrow, mullein, fireweed, pennycress, peppergrass, tansy, thistle stalk, lamb’s quarter, and red and white clover flowers. I found a treasure of wild strawberries that Aunt Giselle could have sold to the wealthier traveling merchants for quite a bit of silver and copper should a way have been found to save them for transport … maybe even a bit of gold; certainly a goodly load of grains or other goods should she have chosen to barter instead.
The strawberries were tiny as my little fingernail but there were so many of them that I could pick a small bucket of them a day; that is until something else found them. The morning I saw the trampled plants and area of missing berries I turned and headed back to the safety of the cabin. That’s where Gid found me replanting some dog rose bushes that I had dug up the day before.
“I thought you were going to wait for me to dig them holes.”
I looked up at him and said, “Was but …”
“But what?” he asked while washing up at the bucket of water I had set to warm for just that purpose.
“The strawberry patch I went to this morning has been stripped.”
I didn’t need to explain my caution. Gid stopped mid splash and asked, “Did you see any scat?”
I shook my head. “But I did see some sign of something big moving through I just can’t tell for sure if it was a grizzle or not. There were no scratches in the ground or surrounding trees.”
Gid looked thoughtful. “Doesn’t have to be a grizzly … could be a black bear. Might not be a bear at all but most likely is. I’ll go look after I get some food in me. I’m about starved to death woman.”
His playfulness and lack of concern told me I’d done the right thing by coming back to the cabin. Still, I did not wish for him to go to the strawberry patch alone and he humored me so long as I promised to do whatever he told me should we run into a predator of some type.
It was short work to get back to the berry patch and with Gid there I decided to collect as many of the small, sweet berries that remained as I could in case he forbade me from going that way again. He called me to him after a bit and said, “It’s a bear true enough, but a yearling by the size of it … and it isn’t a grizzly going by the prints I’ve found and the hair on a tree used for scratching. Could still cause us some trouble so I want the birds and other animals put up if we are both going to be away from the cabin. Now finish your berrying, I need to get back to the field. And you might want to come with me. Saw some currants growing over into the chute and I’m gonna have to cut ‘em back.”
Over the next several days we kept a look out for the bear but it never returned. We did find two old carcasses that I recognized as Prongs from their funny antlers.
Gid said, “Don’t normally get ‘em ‘round here; have to go further to the northwest. P’raps a small herd moved in rather than go to their normal range.”
I shrugged, “I don’t see much evidence that your land suffered from the drought like so many other places have. Perhaps they were here looking for forage.”
Gid nodded. “It’s happened before. We’re pretty well protected here; land hasn’t been hunted over either even though we’re at the foothills where Riverside is in a valley. I even found a skull that couldn’t be from anything but a Big Horn. Likely they came this way to escape death only to find it when they were too weak to survive last winter. I was using my time to clean out the compost in the cabin, not hunt. Maybe I should have.”
When he shrugged in irritation at the opportunity lost I told him, “You bring in as much as Papa did when he spent the mornings hunting.”
He glanced up from some work he was about. “You held your Papa high didn’t you.” It was a statement, not a question.
I nodded. “He took care of us and did his duty to the Church.”
Gid then asked me something I hadn’t thought about. “Wonder what your father would think of me.”
I gave it serious thought while I picked some berries that I knew were edible and on the trail that I had heard called thimbleberries or salmonberries by turn. Gid was setting snares to thin the herds of jackthumpers that were birthed that spring. He wasn’t finished setting the last one before the first one sprang, catching what I decided then and there would be our supper.
I practiced a small smile and told him, “Papa was the same way … so good that the animals seemed to rush to climb into his traps.”
Gid looked surprised then chuckled realizing I had tried to make a joke. “I’m not that good,” he denied modestly.
I shrugged and then said more seriously, “Papa missed too sometimes. He taught me to be gracious about it when it happened to me. He said that if man caught every animal they went after then there would be none left to feed us the next season.”
Gid nodded then looked around. “You got enough? I need to get back.”
“It will be as you say. And Gid?”
Quietly I told him, “I think Papa would have liked you. Mayhap he wouldn’t want to know anything about your … er … appetites, but he’d respect what you are trying to do and the way you are doing it.”
Gid looked at me in surprise and then grinned. “I wish my Mother could meet you and you her. I don’t have too many memories of her but one that I do is one time when she was trying to explain to me why we didn’t live with my father. She told me … ‘Gideon, if you chose to take yourself a woman make sure she is one that makes you feel like a man and that you’re not always having to fight to see who’s boss.’ I didn’t understand at the time but I do now.”
“My mother was what most polite people would call strong-willed. She’d thought Father was going to be able to live with that part of her so long as she gave him what she thought he needed.” He shook his head. “Turns out that perhaps had they not had to face the kind of trouble they did the two of them could have compromised to make it work. But life didn’t happen that way and they could not seem to find it in themselves to get along. Father wanted more children but Mother …” He stopped and shook his head. “Listen to me. All I meant to say was that Mother said to find a woman that made me feel like a man. Just want you to know you do … that and more.”
The pleasure his words gave me coursed through my veins like dream dust. We walked back in companionable silence, taking a path I hadn’t used before. It was as we were passing through some brush that I heard the delicate buzzing. “Gid?”
“I hear ‘em. And here I thought I was going to get some work done but I suppose you want me to check that tree for honey instead.”
I blinked, speechless until he turned and I saw he was smiling. I nearly fell in relief and though I tried to cover it he’d seen. He tucked a stray hair behind my ear and bent low for a gentle kiss. “I’m right fond of the sweet taste of honey.” It took a moment but his innuendo brought the heat to my face which seemed to be his way of being silly and letting me know he had only been jesting with his words before.
We spent the next few hours gathering honey and comb and then carting the sweet, sticky mess back to the cabin where we strained it and poured in into tightly lidded crocks that I had boiled clean. There wasn’t as much jolly making the rest of the month as we were too busy. With the honey I could preserve the fruit in ways other than drying and though tired at the end of the day I felt the satisfaction of knowing that come winter there’d be no doubt that I had pulled my weight and done my duty.