The next morning was a blur of preparing the carriage and harnessing and leashing the swine, followed by lots of rib-bruising hugs and wet eyes, all in the light of the oil lamp hanging from the lamp post on the swineherd carriage. For good measure, there was also a great deal of hair-ruffling and my extraction of promises from Abe and Molly to be good. As I stood next to the prepped swineherd carriage, I checked one last time to be sure that the tail-post was secure. The five smallest sows were on leads connected to the tail-post assembly sticking out of the back of the chassis of the carriage. Their leads were attached to the far end of the tail-post, short enough that the swine couldn’t get trapped under the wheels of the carriage. Our farm wagons and carts didn’t have tail-posts like the carriage, but they weren’t designed for long trips like the carriage. When leading swine behind our carts and wagons, I had to watch carefully when backing or turning. If I didn’t, insufficiently cautious or distracted swine might become fouled in the wheels, leading to severe injury. I wouldn’t need to be concerned about that type of accident with the swineherd carriage’s tail-post being used.
As I stood there, trying to think of what to say as I prepared to get onto the driver’s bench, it was a bit awkward. We’d already said goodbyes.
Ma walked forward one more time, with a small smile, but there was something springy in her step too. “Three last things.”
I’d seen the pouch she had been carrying and suspected it was something I was going to be given, but I certainly wasn’t going to press her on it. Pa looked concernedly at Ma when she said ‘Three last things.’, so I suspected there was an actual surprise to Pa coming too.
I accepted the pouch into my hands, and Ma cupped my chin with her hand. “Waxcloth sealed flatbreads. Some of your favorites. They will be surprises, when you need them.”
I was very happy with the gift. Good food that would last a long time. Densely woven waxcloth wrapped around flatbreads, which were then placed in a ceramic crucible barely larger than the flatbread. The rest of the space around the flatbread in the crucible was filled with melted wax, and then dropped into a pot of boiling water for thirty minutes. When done, the string at the top of the flatbread would be used to pull the waxy package out of the crucible, where it would cool and harden. Not an extravagant expense, but not trivial either – there were at least a dozen of the flatbreads in the pouch, based on the weight. Enough wax for a couple dozen canning jar seals, and waxcloth wasn’t cheap.
“Thanks, Ma, I’ll think of home when I eat them.”
“Oh, you’ll need to think of someone else, too. I gave her the recipes. She made them and brought them over this morning.” Ma whistled a short burst, and I heard the door of our house open, even though the whole family was out in front of the equipment barn with me.
Marza and her mother and father stepped out of our house. They had apparently been snuck into the house when I was getting the carriage and swine ready. After being stunned for a moment, I smiled and stepped forward to meet Marza.
“Did you really think I wasn’t going to come see you this morning, you silly?” She poked me in the nose and I playfully bit at her finger.
“Not answering that question is probably my safest option right now.” I answered as I hugged her to me, fiercely, barely able to speak through the emotions caught in my throat. She was doing her best to crush my breath out too. We didn’t kiss at first, we were in front of family, and getting ‘too familiar’ was typically frowned on. After a minute, despite being in front of family, we pulled apart and kissed strongly.
This might be the last time I see Marza, I’m at least going to give her a good kiss. I thought to myself as we enjoyed the kiss.
I happened to notice Ma and Pa reach their hands together, where they were standing several feet away. Marza’s Ma and Pa didn’t seem to be upset, in fact they were both smiling a little sadly.
“Thank you for coming, Marza.” I poked at her nose with my fingertip. “And thank you for the flatbreads. What kinds did you make?”
She shook her head and smiled up at me with that challenging look in her eyes that I loved so much. “Nope. You’ll find out when you eat them. We all figure that the militia is going to be so badly organized for the first few days that they won’t feed people well, so if you need food, you have some. Otherwise, they’re just extra comfort food when you want it. They aren’t chicken soup or cheese tamales, but your ma said they are some of your favorites.”
I slowly cupped her face between both of my hands and looked her in the eyes, as she stared back at me, our eyes trapped together. “Thank you. I feel like I am the luckiest man on Nirvana.” I wanted to say something about coming back, but that wasn’t a promise I could make, and I didn’t want to taint our leaving with any sort of dishonesty.
Marza pulled me close for another hug, and quietly spoke. “I love you.”
I barely managed to speak, more of a croak instead. “I love you too.” I could say that with no reservations at all.
After a moment, Marza let me go and put her hand on my chest. “Go. The dawn is coming, they want you in town very early, Granpa’s note said.” After a pause. “Come back. Please.”
I wiped a tear off her cheek, and felt her do the same for me as I choked out a response. “I will do my best.”
Marza pushed against me with her hand and turned away, taking several steps and being welcomed into her mother’s strong arms. Her father just looked at me and nodded, thoughtful, and then looked at my mother, who was stepping forward a bit.
Ma coughed. “The third thing is in the pouch with the flatbread, and you can read it later. A letter from me. Some things my family knew, that got me in a lot of trouble when I misused the knowledge. It’s a few pages, so read it when you have time.”
Pa looked at her with a bit of alarm.
Ma stared at Pa, and they locked eyes. After a moment, she spoke in a tone that indicated there was zero room for argument, almost like the tone she used when making the children wash their hands before meals. “I’d rather he know and have a better chance of living.”
They stared at each other for several seconds, and then Pa nodded. Everyone else except Granpa looked confused. Granpa stared at my mother briefly, thoughtfully, then at me, catching my eye. After he knew he had my attention, he cupped his ear, pointed at Ma, and nodded – clearly indicating, listen to your ma.
I remember thinking, Obviously Granpa and Pa both have some idea what the note from Ma is about.
After Ma and Pa stopped staring at one another, Pa turned away from Ma and walked up to me, gave me one last hug that threatened to snap my spine, and ruffled my now completely snarled hair. “Get moving. You need to be in town by sunrise, and I can see light on the horizon. We’ll see you when this is all over.”
“Yes, sir.” I hesitated before turning to the carriage, and climbing up to the driver’s bench, setting the pouch next to me. As I sat, I checked the lamp to be certain it was properly attached. For the next thirty minutes or so I’d need the lamp to give the swine and I enough light to see the road properly.
I picked up the reins in my left hand and waved to everyone with my right as they waved back to me. I carefully gave the verbal command to the swine to pull, and they obediently put their weight into the harness. The two boars led the four sows that I typically used to haul the small farm carts. The sows could haul this carriage by themselves, but the two boars were as massive and as strong as all four sows, if not stronger. Between the six of them, they hauled the light carriage rather easily. I didn’t know how far or fast we’d have to move today. I wanted this to be as easy on them as possible.
After I was too far away to be easily seen, I stopped waving and intentionally lost myself in watching the swine as they pulled. The boars didn’t go into harness often, despite being trained for it. They weren’t any trouble, for now. If this dispute wasn’t resolved before they went into rut, putting them next to each other in harness would be a very bad idea.
When I was at marker nine, a bit more than halfway to town, it was light enough to turn off the lamp, so I did so after briefly stopping the swine. My eyes crossed over the pouch next to me on the bench. I opened it and saw a sheaf of folded papers on top of the sealed flatbreads, as Ma had promised. I wanted to pull Ma’s note out and read it immediately, but it would have to wait. I needed to get into town by the time the sun was over the horizon. The thought of my swine getting twisted up in their harness because I was trying to read in the dawn light while driving was enough to keep my hands off the note.
Another thirty minutes or so later, I encountered chaos. Carts and horses were everywhere. The only island of calm near the town square was around Teak, as she and Donal worked to load her wagon. That calm was being enforced by Kristof and a man wearing the grey clothes and black boots of the militia uniform. Everyone knew to give elefants room to work, but with this much chaos on the roads through town, Kristof and the militiaman were constantly having to warn cart drivers away. Despite the noise, Teak seemed to be in good humor, ignoring everything around her as she lifted nets full of supplies and Donal organized them on the massive six-wheeled roadway wagon.
My swine were nervous with all the nearby activity and chaos, but they were still behaving well. I wanted to get them to a safe place, away from all the hustle and bustle. I saw Lieutenant Davis talking with several men and women on the porch of the inn, as he spoke to each of them, they left him at a fast walk, clearly having been tasked to do something. As I watched, two women and a man walked back at a fast pace, climbed the steps, handed the lieutenant papers, and waited, listening, for the lieutenant to direct them.
Not quite chaos then, I thought as I looked around more carefully, just a whole lot of people trying to do a lot of different things in too small an area.
I found a section of road along the side of Cambel’s Inn that wasn’t occupied and pulled the carriage next to the fence. Definitely an unacceptable action in normal day-to-day, but today wasn’t normal. There was no way my carriage, with the tail-post attached, was going to get anywhere close to the hitching post in front of either inn.
I picked up the pouch with Ma’s note and flatbreads from the bench next to me as I dismounted from the carriage. I thought about carrying it with me but that was foolish, enough wear and tear on the waxed cloth around the flatbreads and they would be exposed to moisture and contamination that would allow them to start going bad. I quickly took Ma’s note out of the pouch and put it in my shoulder pouch that at the moment only had a sling and a few stones in it. After Ma’s note was safe, I put the flatbread pouch inside the carriage in one of the cabinets next to the large bag of swine treats I’d stored there.
After that, I quickly tied the reins to the fence and fed the swine that had pulled the carriage a treat each while I quickly checked their harness and gave them head-scratches. When no harness or injuries were found, I walked around the fence and stepped up onto the inn’s porch.
Lieutenant Davis looked at me as I walked up. “Allen, go inside. The doctor has been waiting for you, he wants to see your carriage. You will probably be carrying some of the less critical medical supplies. You said your carriage could carry two hundred kilos of cargo without overloading, right?”
After a brief moment remembering the discussion about the carriage with Granpa the night before, I responded. “Yes, sir.” The carriage would actually carry over three hundred extra kilos easily, according to Granpa, but I didn’t want to add that much work for the swine. Not for hauling supplies when we had horses and elefants available.
“That should be enough to carry a bunch of bandages and other basic medical supplies.” The lieutenant replied. “Go on, the doctor is waiting on you.”
I remembered thinking that I had told them when to expect me, and I was there within minutes of full sunup, as I said I would be. All I could think was that I was starting the first day being told to work with someone who thought I was late. I said nothing and tried not to feel annoyed as I quickly walked into the Inn and looked around for someone who might be a doctor.
I saw the lieutenant look at me, with a little smile, but he didn’t say anything so I pretended not to notice.
The militia doctor was easily found. He was sitting at a table with the town doctor, Sara Eliza. They were both drinking tea and eating eggs as they watched me walk in the door. He was a balding, dark-skinned man with tight grey curling hair, wearing the grey militia uniform with black boots. She was a middle-aged woman with long blond hair starting to go grey at the temples, wearing a pair of heavy, loose light blue pants and a white blouse.
Doctor Eliza smiled. “Hello, Allen.”
I looked from one of them to the other. They were clearly in no rush. They didn’t seem to be waiting for me.
The doctor that I didn’t know smiled. “Don’t worry about it, son, we overheard. The officers all use the same tactic. They tell you that the person they want you to go see is waiting for you, so you move faster.” He paused. “Works pretty well, eh?”
I had to admit, it had worked on me. “Seems so, sir.”
He chuckled, and reached out a hand to shake. I took a half step closer and shook hands with him and he continued to talk. “I’m Doc Sten. Retired last year, but apparently not for long. After breakfast, we’ll go look at your carriage. Sergeant Gonzalez’s description of the carriage he helped your family design for you seems like it will be an excellent place to store medical supplies so they can be accessed quickly and easily, in separate storage containers. It might also make a good ambulance or even a surgical bed at need, though I hope to not need it for either of those reasons.”
I hadn’t even considered that the carriage might be used for those purposes. I swallowed at the mental image of surgery on the bed. “I hope that’s not needed either, but if it is, then it is, sir.”
Doc Sten narrowed his eyes at me as he took another bite of eggs. “You seem a mite thin, son, even for a clearly-growing teenager. Do you eat regularly? Sit down.”
I obeyed, pulling out a seat and sitting in it, and answered him. “I do eat regularly, sir.”
The doctor paused a moment, and then waved his hand in the air. “Innkeep, please bring another glass, a pot of tea, a couple pieces of bread and butter, and an apple for the young skeleton here.” He looked at me as I started to object. “I’m paying. No arguments. Unless you aren’t hungry? I’ve never met a physically active boy your age that wasn’t hungry fifteen minutes after the last time they ate.”
I looked at Doctor Eliza who was smiling, but not saying anything, leaving me to explain myself. She knew I was healthy. She hadn’t been the town doctor when my baby fat had disappeared as a toddler, but she’d asked the same sorts of questions when she first saw me for health checkups in school. She’d insisted that I do strength and endurance tests in front of her because she was worried that I was malnourished.
Left to my own defenses, I replied. “Sir, I’ve been like this since I was a toddler. Almost no body fat and very lean, compact muscle. Ma and Pa thought I was allergic to something. This was before Doctor Eliza was the town doctor.”
Doctor Eliza nodded as Doctor Sten looked at her. “Yes. It’s in his files.”
After Doctor Sten looked at me again, he rolled his hand in front of him. “Go on.”
I continued, nervous, but they were doctors, and I was going to be working with at least one of them to some extent. “No diseases, no tapeworms, and Ma feeds me as well as anyone else. I don’t eat as much as the rest of my male relatives, but they all outweigh me by at least thirty kilos. Pa and Edward by sixty or seventy kilos.” I looked at Doctor Sten, who was nodding. He motioned that I continue. After a moment of thought, I described my diet a little more. “I eat a lot more than most people my weight, even though most people my weight have a lot more muscle than me due to my height and bone mass.” I shrugged. “I have zero problems with endurance. If I can do something with fairly minimal effort, I can do it without running out of energy until my body is out of sugars. I’ve not met a person that can match me in a long run if I’ve been eating well. In a very long run, I’ll outrun a horse, but I have to carry food for that long of a run.”
Doctor Sten took another bite of eggs and chewed, thinking. “You’re clearly not physically weak either, or you wouldn’t be here after the militia testing.” He looked at Doctor Eliza. “Hyperthyroid and dominant type 1 muscle? Maybe a secondary IGF-1 gene expression?”
She shrugged. “I thought so too. It seems like the most plausible explanation, assuming it’s not something completely different that we can’t quantify.” Her voice grew deeper and annoyed-sounding, briefly. “Maybe one day Albert will let us use genetics for more than educated guesswork again.” She shook her head. “Sorry. Allen’s definitely got an odd genetic makeup, especially for around here. His mother came from New Ireland, where hyperthyroidism and his height is fairly common. IGF-1 dual expression was part of the original genetic makeup of a lot of the settlers in the New Charleston area according to the records. Based on tested physical performance, it still seems fairly common around here in the farming communities. Type 1 muscle would fit Allen too, but I have no idea where those genes might have come from. Nobody in his family, based on my records, come from genetic stock with known Type 1 muscle.” She shrugged and grinned at me. “He’s not joking about the horse. It wasn’t a trotter with a lightweight jockey, but it was only a twenty kilometer race. The rider wasn’t a very big man, and he did beat the horse, by about a minute. I made a few fisc that day, betting on him with unwary fishermen.”
I was getting uncomfortable being talked about by the doctors as they slowly ate their eggs and looked at me.
Doctor Sten smiled at Mr. Cambel as he brought the food and tea to the table. “Thank you, good man, the eggs are quite delicious.”
Mr. Cambel said “You’re welcome, sir.” as he went back into the area between the bar and the kitchen where he was preparing vegetables or roots, based on the peeling noises I was hearing.
Doctor Sten looked at me, his eyes tracing across my face. “Sorry to embarrass you, son, but you’ve got a remarkable physique. Most persons with your height and weight would be unhealthy, even at your age. Doctors being what we are, we’re always looking for outliers, people who are different. We can’t learn much from people who are just like everyone else.”
That made some sense. Doctor Eliza had pretty much said the same thing years ago when she’d tested me. “I suppose I understand sir, and I don’t mind answering questions, but it was a bit abrupt. Caught me off guard.”
They both laughed.
“You were right, Sara, I’m sure we’ll get along.” Doctor Sten grinned at me.
I looked at Doctor Eliza, and she smiled back. “I told him that you two would probably get along. I did my internship under Doctor Sten.” She punched him in the arm, rocking him in his chair slightly. “He’s from a farm family, he’s always said. Even though he knows nothing about farming.”
“Careful with that mean punch, young lady, that might be elder abuse.” Doctor Sten looked at Doctor Eliza with a smile before turning his head to me. “I grew up on a ranch, not a farm. We raised animals, not vegetables. That’s where I learned the beginnings of medicine, tending the cows and horses and helping the veterinarian whenever I could. Ranch life and farm life aren’t so different.” Doctor Sten was looking at me with a twinkle in his eye. “Isn’t that right, son?”
“Never been a rancher, sir, so I can’t say with confidence.” I knew he expected me to say more, but I decided not to. I’d said all I knew, because I really know little about ranch life. It also felt weirdly like he was testing me, the cadence and tone of the question was more challenging than inquisitive. Some of my school teachers would ask questions in a tone like that when they were trying to get a student to say something wrong without thinking. I said no more as I concentrated on the bread and apple after pouring myself a glass of tea, and refilling the glasses of the others. Doctor Sten watched me as I ate.
When I didn’t continue speaking, after a few seconds, Doctor Sten snorted and added another spoonful of sugar to his newly filled glass before sipping the hot tea. As he set the tea down and started eating his eggs again, he commented with a smile, “We’ll definitely get along. Finish eating, Allen, and then let’s go take a look at that carriage of yours. It sounded fascinating. If it has a better sprung suspension than a farm wagon, I might ride with you, if that’s OK? Been forty years since I was in a saddle, and my hips are killing me after yesterday’s ride.”
“Yes, sir. The carriage is well-sprung. Much better than a farm cart, and it’ll definitely be kinder on sore hips than a horse. You will probably still want a pillow or pad of some sort after a bad day on a horse though.” Doctor Sten nodded, and seemed satisfied. I could only hope that we ended up getting along as well as he thought we would. Especially since it was beginning to look like he was going to be riding with me, not just storing medical supplies in my carriage.
With a smile, Doctor Eliza pushed her chair back and stood. “Well, you boys have fun. The Countyman said he had a small stock of a few medical supplies that had very long shelf lives in county storage. I’ll see if there is anything you wanted, Doctor Sten, and get a message to you if there is. I wish I could give you more from my own stocks, but we’ve already pulled out all I can afford to give without risking shortfalls for local health. Especially with flu season coming.”
Doctor Sten nodded. “Thank you, Sara, I have no complaints. Saving everyone from starving to death won’t do us much good if the people back home die from influenza, pneumonia, or other shortages of medical supplies.”
As I finished my bread and apple, Doctor Sten stood and settled the bill with Mr. Cambel. As we walked around the Inn to where I’d parked the carriage, I saw a child playing with Speedy, scratching her on the neck and feeding her bits of grass she’d pulled up from along the side of the Inn’s yard. The other sows were looking on, but not being aggressive about getting to the food being given to Speedy. Yet.
“Please be careful young lady. Do not put your hand in Speedy’s mouth and don’t turn your backs on the others if you are feeding only her. If a hand goes in her mouth, it is food, and you might not get your hand back in good condition.” She seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place her.
“Your family sells us swine every year, Allen.” She thought for a second. “You didn’t recognize me, did you? I’m Celia, the marina master’s second-youngest daughter. I’ve been walking your swine up and down the coast for years and still have all my fingers.”
“Seems like you’ve grown up a bit since last year, Celia.” I smiled. She definitely had, which was why I hadn’t recognized her. At least several inches in height, and starting to fill out in the hips and bosom a bit. She was probably thirteen now.
She blushed a bit. “You’re taking them with you? Even the little one here with juvenile stripes?”
I nodded. “I’ll be foraging with them. They can feed themselves, and help me drag food out of the woods for the militia.”
“I was afraid to feed the big ones up front. They are adult males? They are really big.”
I thought about letting her feed acorn treats to the boars, but decided against it. I didn’t want to encourage her to interact with adult boars. “Yes. Hoss and Bigboy are adult males, boars, it was probably good that you didn’t feed them. They can be aggressive about food, sometimes much more aggressive than sows.” All true. Perhaps a little unclear about exactly how dangerous they really were, but everyone knew that horses could hurt you bad if you treated them wrong. The same was definitely true for full-grown adult boars.
“Thanks for not being mad at me for feeding the little one, Allen. She’s a cutie.” Her voice got a bit sad. “Kell was drafted, and I came up here with him to take his horse back. I’ve got to go now. There’s nets to be mended so the fishermen can keep fishing, and Pa will be mad if I stay away too long!” She ran across the road and untied the reins of a pony and horse next to one another, hopping up onto the pony and leading the horse away at a walk through the busy street.
Several others had overheard the conversation. A couple were shaking their heads at Celia’s abrupt departure. As I turned towards Doctor Sten, he grinned. “Ah, youth.” Then he took a couple steps to the side and looked at the front of the carriage. “Sergeant Gonzalez and the other officers didn’t mention that swine pulled your carriage. Very uncommon. I’ve seen swine in harness hauling carts, but only a couple times. I’ve never seen a carriage pulled by swine. Is carrying a passenger and some cargo going to be a problem?”
“Not if we keep the total mass of cargo to something modest. You plus a couple hundred kilos of supplies at most.” I replied as I checked the leashes and harnesses to make sure Celia hadn’t played with them, and that the swine hadn’t been chewing on them. I found no problems.
“These are small swine, for adults”, he commented, walking carefully, with slow movements next to the boars and sows in harness in front of the carriage. “They have oddly short back legs too, and a narrower body.”
As he inspected the inside of the carriage and looked in the various compartments, we chatted about my family’s swine breeding program as he quickly sketched out the locations of the different compartments and wrote what he would want to put in them.
He was a horse and cow man, and wasn’t aware that there were several distinct breeds of swine. Or, rather, he wasn’t aware that there had once been several distinct breeds of swine. There weren’t anymore, not on Nirvana, anyway. Some of the oldest notes that still existed seemed to indicate the purity of even the original lines brought from Earth was questionable, because of how long the different breeds of swine had been intermixing. Albert might be able to isolate the genetics of pure forest swine to make more, but that was the only way we’d see pure breeds again. Over four thousand years of interbreeding had made it so that our family probably had about the purest genetic strain of forest swine, and our lines were loaded with domestic swine genetics. We’d been forced to introduce domestic swine genes thousands of years ago, or risk genetic problems due to too small of a population of breeding animals.
“Well, would you want pure forest swine again, for breeding stock?” Doctor Sten asked. “Wouldn’t that be a throwback for your family’s swine stock?”
I thought about it for a minute as he sketched and documented where he wanted things to go on the various storage areas in the carriage, except for the two largest cabinets, which I had claimed to store swine treats, other supplies, and my backpack with clothes.
After a little consideration, I replied, thinking aloud. “It would certainly have the possibility of introducing unwanted traits, but it might also improve the stock in the long run. We’d have to breed them cautiously, and watch the offspring carefully, for several generations.” I paused for a moment, thinking briefly about some of the many-times-copied documents I’d been required to read and answer questions about when I first started raising my own sounder. “Tractability in the short run would certainly be a problem; we still get temperamental throwbacks from time to time now with our current animals. With purebred forest swine as breeding stock, entire litters would likely be genetic throwbacks for at least the first couple generations. We would have to plan to accommodate several generations of swine that would have to be isolated to prevent unintentional breeding, and that were not safe to work freely around humans. That would be… difficult. Expensive, labor-wise, space-wise, and feed-wise.”
The expense and work that would be required to manage that segregation was daunting. Definitely not something a new farmstead could afford to think about casually. “Despite all the problems, if it were possible and I had the means to make it happen, I would. Genetically pure forest swine were very intractable and explosively violent, but they were also very smart – possibly smarter in some ways than our current breeds. The aggressiveness of the original forest swine stock required that breeding for temperament was a higher priority than intelligence, unlike today where we breed for intelligence first. We could have lost a lot.” It was a fascinating idea, and I lost myself imagining how I would segregate and breed a pure strain forest swine into my sounder if I had a bunch of family to help around a well-established farm. I’d need a lot of extra pens, because the first few generations would be temperamental throwbacks, for certain, unable to be trained properly. My mind wandered off from there into realms of improbability.
I was peripherally aware of Doctor Sten spending a couple more minutes sketching and thinking before he tapped me on the forehead, interrupting me in the middle of my planning for hypothetical purebred forest swine introduction to my current swine stock. With a bit of a smile at my reaction to the tap on the forehead, he said, “Come on, young, strong back. We have a few crates of medical supplies in the Inn that you’re going to carry for me. I’ll pack the compartments in the carriage as you bring me the crates.”
We went inside and Doctor Sten showed me thirty small crates of medical supplies that were stored in the room he had spent last night in. As it turned out, he wanted the important medicines and equipment in the carriage, not the bulk bandages and antiseptics, which would be carried in larger wagons. Even the opiates and metal surgical implements would be in the carriage, which worried me a bit. They might be a theft target. I hadn’t heard of any issues with habitual drug use in the community in recent years, but people rarely talked about their problems openly. Metal doctor’s tools were fantastically expensive, and could easily be worth a thief’s time. I sighed to myself. I’d volunteered the carriage for military use. As long as they didn’t force me to abuse it when it wasn’t necessary to abuse it, I couldn’t really object.
It didn’t really make sense though. The valuable medical goods could be stored in more secure wagons. Some of the wagons were freight wagons, with full sides, and no windows. The more valuable supplies could be stored far more securely there.
I remembered wracking my brains. Why is he doing this?
All of a sudden, as he stepped out of the carriage and it settled back on its suspension, a memory struck me. When Doctor Sten had first stepped into the carriage, he had done so far more heavily than had been necessary. Almost violently enough for me to get angry with him for needlessly being forceful. As the carriage rocked on its leather and wood suspension, he had stood in the door, looking thoughtful for a moment before nodding to himself. With that memory in my mind, and remembering his comment about his hips earlier, I realized what he was doing. He was purposefully creating a situation where he had an excuse to ride on the carriage, even if someone, for whatever reason, tried to convince him otherwise.
I needed to nip other ideas in the bud though, if he had them. “I don’t mind you making certain that you will have a good reason to ride on the carriage, Doctor Sten, but I have to sleep in the carriage bunk. The swine will be restrained underneath in a temporary pen at night. I’m not sure how they would react to having an unfamiliar person sleeping above them. At the very least, they would be restless, irritable, and noisy.”
Doctor Sten looked at me for a moment, and then smiled. “I see. Well figured, young man, but you don’t have to worry about your bunk or having your carriage taken from you. My back prefers a hammock to a bed these days, and I have a nice one with a post frame that I can set up in the officer’s tent. I just want to ensure that I can still walk when we get to the border. We’ll be building semi-permanent facilities there anyway, since we may be there several months, and within a few days, all the medical supplies will be out of your wagon.”
I nodded. “Understood sir.”
For the next hour or so, I carried boxes of medical supplies from the Inn to the carriage, and Doctor Sten carefully unpacked everything into the different carriage compartments, and had me stow the empty boxes on top of the carriage in the luggage area. By the time the carriage was loaded, Teak and two other road crew elefants from New Charleston road services had moved out with their massive wagons with huge tanks of water and heavy supplies. Ox-hauled cargo wagons had been next, as they were only slightly faster than elefants. Almost everyone else was ready to move, either on foot, or with horse-drawn wagons.
A short time after the last box had been carried downstairs from the room they had been stored in, Doctor Sten stepped out of the carriage again, swiping his hands together vertically in an almost-clap. “Time for me to go report to the Captain that we are ready to move.”
He started walking towards the inn, and I followed after him.
After a couple steps, he looked over his shoulder with a puzzled look on his face, and then he frowned. “I’m sorry. I must have forgotten to mention this to you. Someone has to be by the carriage at all times with the medical supplies in it. Most of the time, if one of us has to stay by the carriage, it’ll be you.”
“Oh. I see.” I didn’t really see. Other people could also guard the carriage. I tried to figure out why I was considered trustworthy by this doctor I’d never met.
He laughed at me, briefly. It was no more than a quick chuckle, but it was obvious that I’d been wearing my emotions on my sleeve again.
I felt myself grow upset. I wasn’t upset at him, I was upset at myself for my inability to hide my expressions.
“Allen, Lieutenant Davis asked the Countyman which of the people we were getting had a history of fighting. He wanted to know so you could be tested for an ability to learn spear handling more quickly, so you could, in turn help others learn. Your name was on the list, along with three others. That’s good for me, because I get a person next to the medical supplies who people from around here know might be willing to thump them if they try to steal anything from the carriage. You do have permission to do non-lethal harm to any non-officer who refuses to take no for an answer, and tries to force access to the carriage. You must tell them to stop trying to access the carriage before you use force, if that becomes necessary.”
He waited for me to nod before continuing. “For the record, there are five officers: Captain Marko, Lieutenants Baker and Davis, Quartermaster Brown, and me. Nobody else can tell you to get out of their way and give them access to the carriage. That includes local government.” He shrugged. “I don’t suspect the local sheriff or the Countyman is going to demand access to the medical supplies in the carriage, Allen, but it’s not impossible. If they want access, at least one of the five of us militia officers will always be at the Inn, at least until we are out of town. Send whoever wants access into the Inn.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak quite yet, and walked two steps back to the carriage. I normally only carried my staff in the woods, but if I was playing guard, then I supposed I should do it right. I opened the carriage door, reaching in and pulling the staff out of the ceiling net.
Then it hit me, and I turned, rapidly. “Sir, is Lieutenant Davis aware that I will not be able to forage properly until we have another place to store the valuable medical supplies? The two of us had an agreement that my swine and I would have to be a net benefit to the militia food foraging situation if I wanted to avoid my swine being slaughtered.” I swallowed, trying to be clear, but not sound angry. “I didn’t bring them to have them become militia rations.”
“Don’t worry, Allen. This responsibility is very temporary. We’ll arrive mid-day tomorrow at the border, and my medical building will be one of the first buildings to go up, because I will need to prepare centrifuges to separate plasma drawn from the first few people to get the flu, so I can treat new cases with convalescent plasma. You can feed them at the side of the road for a couple nights if need be, and they won’t be a drain on the militia food supply. I know that much about swine.”
I was fairly certain that he was telling the truth, so I tried not to clench my fist too hard on the staff as I stared at him for a couple seconds and nodded. “Yes, sir.”
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