We met the search party not much more than a half kilometer from camp. There were three people in the party. I recognized all of them by lantern light, but I only knew Emerald by name.
As they approached, the woman held the lantern a bit higher and called out “Allen, Anu, is that you?”
Anu called out. “Yes, Sara, Allen got a little banged up, he’ll need to see the doctor when we get back to camp.”
I recognized Sara as the woman who had been partnered with the dark-haired man as they carried saplings back to camp. The dark-haired man that had been with Sara earlier was there too. Emerald was also with them.
As they approached, the three of them slowed from a rapid walk to a stop. Then they turned around and started walking next to us on the road. Sara was carefully carrying a glass alcohol lantern with a heavy leather glove. She and Emerald had both very obviously looked towards my right leg as they approached, watching my limping gait. My right hand was on top of Anu’s left shoulder and my left hand holding the reins for the boars. After watching me walk, Sara looked a bit concerned. Emerald didn’t look concerned at all.
The dark-haired man asked, “Are you OK?”
Sara and Emerald both looked at him with a sharp glance. It was certainly clear to both them that I wasn’t OK, but it was also pretty obvious that I wasn’t in terribly bad condition. The two of them looked back at me. Sara with a bit of an apologetic look, and Emerald a little warily.
I was irritated that he had asked. I wouldn’t be walking on it so easily if it was serious, but I could see from his expression that he really was concerned, so I bit back the smart comment.
After a second to make sure I was calm, I nodded, and then spoke. “Not quite OK, but not bad. Ran into a rattlesnake while climbing over roadside rocks. Sprained my left wrist and a bit of a sore shoulder. One of my swine stepped on my calf in the chaos, but I don’t think it broke or tore anything. My knee and ankle feel fine. It’s going to be a fantastic bruise though, I bet.”
Sara and Emerald both nodded. The dark-haired man nodded too, after a moment eying the swine. Being stepped on by farm animals happened often enough that everyone who grew up on a farm knew it was no laughing matter. Just looking at the small hooved feet of swine, as the dark-haired man had clearly just done, would tell anyone with any common sense that my getting away without broken bones or torn muscles was fortunate.
“Are we the only ones still not back?” I asked.
Emerald answered that. “No, there were others. Not many dogs handy for tracking. Ely, Sara, and I remembered seeing you. Sara and Ely knew where Anu had been cutting. We were told to try to find you.” Each sentence was short and to the point.
It had been a little too tense of a meeting for everyone to be introduced properly, but thanks to Emerald’s statements, I knew everyone’s name, at least. “Thank you for coming to find us Emerald, Sara, Ely. We don’t plan on stopping again, and I don’t think I’m much of a burden to Anu like this.”
Anu chuckled, her shoulder heaving a bit under my supporting hand. After a couple chuckles, she spoke. “Hardly.”
I smiled at Anu’s reaction and then addressed Emerald, who seemed to be in charge. Or maybe he had simply taken charge? The other two didn’t seem upset with him. “Please go back and let whoever sent you know that Anu and I will be back in a few minutes. I’d also appreciate it if you tell the doctor that I’ll need a check on my calf and a poultice for a nasty bruise; it’s already tight inside the leg of my pants.”
Emerald nodded and said “Yes, to both.” before he turned and started walking quickly back towards the camp. The other two just stared at his back for a second, looked back at Anu and I, and then followed after Emerald, jogging to catch up, then matching his pace.
A few minutes later, we were back in camp, next to Happy’s six-wheeled wagon at the side of the road. There were two piles of saplings next to the wagon; one pile consisted of ash saplings of the three-meter length that had been asked for. The other pile was clearly for rejects – different types of trees mostly, but some too short and others that were obviously damaged. There were a lot of rejects.
I quickly unhitched the boars and gave them treats for their work in harness. I tried to help Anu untie the bundle of ash saplings and the two axes we’d tied onto the bundle, but she waved me off as she knelt by the pile. “Go put your swine away and find the doctor to look at your leg. I’ll bring the straps to your carriage shortly.”
Nodding, I agreed with her. “I will, thank you. The guards won’t let you into my carriage because it has medical supplies in it. They may not even let you close to it. If that’s the case, ask them to put the straps on the carriage bench if you don’t see me.”
“OK” Anu nodded, as she kneeled down and started untying the straps around the saplings.
As I walked slowly towards my carriage to put away the swine, I struggled a bit on my right leg. I was using the shortened sapling I’d cut into a chest pole for the boar harness as a cane. The swelling in my calf was now constricting my leg in my pants tightly enough that I could feel every beat of my pulse. I would probably have to cut my pants from the knee down to get them off.
I saw Quartermaster Brown and Lieutenant Davis appear from the officer’s tent, walking towards me.
“I told you we needed to send them out in mixed groups of rural and non-rural people!” The quartermaster said in an exasperated tone. “Almost a third of the saplings brought back are useless. We’ve got five lost in the woods, and we’ll have to send people out to collect more ash saplings tomorrow as well, instead of edible forage!”
By the time Quartermaster Brown finished speaking, the fast-walking officers were no more than a few feet from me, and I was edging towards the side a bit to give them room to pass, watching my swine by the lights of all the nearby campfires to make sure they stayed near me and didn’t get too much in the way of the officers.
Lieutenant Davis looked at me, and then his head turned to look beyond me towards where Anu was. “Three.”
“Three what?” The quartermaster asked with a puzzled look.
The lieutenant nodded at me as they walked past. “Welcome back, Allen. Emerald said that you and Anu were bringing a lot of extra saplings with you, and that they all appeared to be ash. That will be useful.” He looked away from me, towards the quartermaster. “The two that were found slowly walking back are here now. This is Allen. I think I see Anu now, at the sapling piles. That is Anu, right, Allen?”
I nodded at the two of them. “Good night, sirs. Yes, Anu is at Happy’s wagon. Have you seen Doctor Sven? I need him to look at my leg.”
Lieutenant Davis nodded. “Emerald told us. Doctor Sven said you would be headed to your carriage with your swine if you could walk, and he’d meet you there. He left the officer’s tent shortly before we did.”
“Thank you, sir.” I responded with a nod of my head.
We passed each other, and the quartermaster called out. “Anu, don’t sort those yet. I have to look at them.”
I heard Anu call back “Understood. Leave them? I have two axes to return as well.”
“No, we’ll be there shortly.”
Behind me, I heard Lieutenant Davis sigh. “I grant that you were right before. The captain and I both came from a rural background. It’s hard to know what other people don’t know.”
“I told you what they wouldn’t know, because I didn’t know it?” The quartermaster objected.
I did my best to not laugh, and was very glad I hadn’t heard the quartermaster say that when the lieutenant could see my face.
In a tired-sounding voice, the lieutenant responded again. “You were right, Paul. Sorry. Like Captain Marko said, we’ll start sending them out in mixed groups from now on.”
I walked past a few wagons and saw my carriage. Someone was sitting in the open door of the carriage. I could see their feet below the door, even though the door blocked my view of the rest of their body. It was almost certainly Doctor Sven.
As I walked by the wagons with my attention focused on the carriage, someone said “stop” from about three feet to my left. I was startled enough to hop a bit to one side, which hurt. A lot. Worse, I lost my grip on the chest pole. There was an irritated grunt and the sound of snuffling as the pole apparently fell on one of my swine, who then checked to see if it was edible.
“Jumpy, are you?” The guard chuckled as she looked at my face. “Sorry to make you hop, Allen, I just needed to be sure it was you.”
“No harm done.” I smiled. “Don’t do that to Doctor Sven though.”
There was a cough from the carriage. “My ears still work.”
“You know I’m right. You’re no spring chicken.” I called back.
Doctor Sven chuckled, but didn’t say anything else.
I looked at the ground to see where the chest pole had fallen, and saw a long straight shadow about a meter from me, next to a wagon wheel. Carefully, I put my right hand on the side of the wagon while bending my left knee to lower myself with my right leg held mostly straight behind me. As my good left leg and right arm supported me, I tried to collect the pole with my left hand with the sprained wrist.
“That looks painful. Want help?” The guard commented.
A bit late, I thought to myself, but her voice seemed sincere and what I could see of her expression in the poor light looked a bit worried.
My hand gripped the pole, and I straightened, putting a lot of weight on my right arm. “I have it. Thanks for the offer.”
I thumped the pole on the ground, adjusted my grip, and walked towards my carriage while calling out. “Let me get them settled under the carriage, Doctor.”
While I carefully leaned into the carriage with my right hip, I removed the harness from the boars, and put both sets in my pouch, making a mental note to inspect and clean them before sleeping. Then I cajoled the swine under the carriage one at a time, counting heads, tapping them very lightly with the pole to guide them into the unfamiliar place. Thankfully, there were eleven heads.
I carefully stabilized myself with my right hand against the carriage and used my left hand to insert the last four slats before turning to walk around the carriage, using the pole as a long cane.
“You’re walking awfully gingerly on that leg. How much is pain, how much is caution?” Doctor Sven had walked around the carriage and stood a few feet away, watching me.
I just looked at him for a second, trying to figure out if I needed to be annoyed at him. I would have asked for help if I’d needed it.
“I wanted to see you walk, so walk.” He rolled his hand in front of him impatiently.
Wanting to see me move made sense. It was one way we judged livestock injury on the farm. I shrugged and obeyed, walking carefully around the carriage. “About half and half, Doctor.” I answered him. “It hurts, but some of the slowness is just me being careful. It is swelling fairly badly, I can tell. Earlier I checked for bleeding and there wasn’t any, but I haven’t seen the wound.”
“Well, we get to use your bed as a medical table before you get to sleep on it then. See if you can get your pants off without needing to cut the fabric. If you can’t, I’ll cut a seam for you as cleanly as I can so you can patch it up.”
Climbing into the carriage and past the centrifuge boxes hurt. I had to walk in a crouch and carefully place my feet until I got to the bed, and that put a lot of strain on my calf. I almost couldn’t do it, but made it happen anyway, with several curses under my breath.
I finally managed to get myself seated on the bed in the carriage and take the weight off my leg. Unfortunately, my calf was jammed into my pants like an overstuffed sausage. Trying to squeeze my calf with both hands to press out some of the swelling so I could get the leg out without cutting the pants wasn’t even a remote possibility. Far too painful. I finally gave up. “I’ve got a sewing kit, sir. Cut it, please.”
Doctor Sven had been standing outside, holding open the door of the carriage, watching me without entering. After I asked him to cut open the leg of the pants, he nodded. “Lay on your stomach, with your right leg closer to the door.”
“Yes, sir.” I did as he asked, whistling and wheezing a couple times in pain as I bent my leg inside the tight pants leg.
The doctor leaned over and picked up two somethings. A moment later, he tossed his pillow that he’d sat on earlier in the day at me. “Hold this a minute.”
As he climbed in, I could see that he had a small leather bag in his hand. His first aid kit bag.
“This won’t do”, he complained a moment after he stepped into the carriage, hunched over and looking at the centrifuge crates on the floor.
He climbed back out of the carriage and leaned in, lifting a centrifuge crate and setting it on the second crate that was right behind it. Then he climbed in and picked up the crate again and put it on the crate next to the bed. “Pick that up and put it on the bed, for now.” He ordered. “I need a place to sit, and I don’t want to break an ankle.”
I sat up on the bed with more leg pain, picked up the crate with some effort, and then set it at one end of the bed, where my feet would be that night. With as much swelling as I had in the leg already, I would be elevating my leg that night, so I was just getting ahead of the game. I once again went through the contortions of lying on my stomach with my right side facing the door of the carriage, trying to avoid bending my leg.
I heard the swine underneath us grunting little noises of curiosity at the scrapes and bouncing of the carriage on its suspension. I knocked on the wall of the carriage. “Quiet.” The swine settled.
Doctor Sven picked up the crate closer to me and set it on the one that had been in the middle. “Pillow please.” He gestured with his fingers and I handed him the pillow.
After putting the pillow on the stacked crates, Doctor Sven had his two-crate seat, and was leaning over, inspecting my pants, fingering the cloth and pulling the seams a bit apart.
“You know, I considered that I might have to use this carriage for first aid on the way to where we will be setting up permanent camp, but I was expecting to have a strong young back to help me arrange everything.” He chuckled. “That was supposed to be you. And here you go ruining my plans by being the first injured person.”
“Sorry to interfere with your plans, sir.” I said with a little chuckle.
He leaned over a bit and I heard him rummaging around in his bag, muttering to himself. “Sailcloth pants with wool stitching.” He looked at me with a nod. “This will be simple. I won’t damage the cloth at all.”
He lifted up a sheath, and pulled a glass knife out of it, checking the blade with his thumb.
He looked at me, and grinned. “You won’t be seeing metal today, Allen, glass will cut stitches just fine.”
“I didn’t expect it, doctor. I’ve seen metal before though. Twice.”
“Really? Tell me about it?” he said as he leaned over my leg with the glass knife.
We started talking back and forth. I told him about what I remembered of Granpa’s lower leg amputation, and the ‘huge responsibility’ I’d been given to stand next to the kitchen entrance with a broom and poke anyone who got close to warn them about the tools being boiled. I joked about how obviously it was just something to keep me out from underfoot, and the doctor seriously reminded me that keeping me out from underfoot was a very good idea at that age.
We both got quiet and the doctor kept cutting stitches out of the seam of the pants. After a few seconds of silence, he spoke again. “We don’t have to talk about that if you don’t want to.” There was a slow caution in his voice.
“It was a long time ago, sir. Granpa survived and is still alive and mobile on crutches.”
“A long time ago, you say?” He chuckled. “Doctor Pelter, was the town doctor, right?”
“Yes, sir.” I replied.
We continued with small talk for a while and after a couple minutes, the stitches had been picked, and the doctor was poking and prodding at my calf.
“Hrm.” He said. “You walked a kilometer on this? Put weight on it repeatedly, not just hopping on your other leg?”
“Yes, sir. You saw me walking. It wasn’t that bad when I started, but the swelling made it worse over time.”
“I see. It’s too swollen for me to properly feel both bones, but I’d still be able to feel a severe break. Also, if you walked that far, the worst break I imagine you might have is a hairline. We’ll assume that for treatment.”
“So, you said you have seen metal twice? What was the second time?” he asked as he started to poke and prod at the bruise, as well as above and below it, making me hiss in pain.
“Yes, sir. I noticed the other day that the Countyman’s glass ring of office has a thin band of metal inside it. I’d never noticed that before.”
“It’s not glass; it’s a hardened plastic of some sort. The band is a transmitter and receiver. Albert gives them to all his officers.” Doctor Sven started opening cabinets and I saw him pull out a couple large pots. “Move over a bit, I need room to mix the poultice.”
I moved over and the doctor started mixing powders together. I recognized the smell of comfrey, witch hazel, and garlic.
After a couple minutes, Doctor Sven had prepared the mixture, gathered the bandages out of his bag, and removed several more stitches from my pants so he could fold the fabric up above my knee.
“The swelling in your leg is bad, but not severe. Your pants were a bit small on you. That’s not uncommon at your age.” He paused and looked at me with a small smile. “As you get older the fitting problems with legwear migrate from the hem and calves to the waist.” He chuckled. “Still, I’m going to put you in a compression bandage and treat with a poultice of comfrey and witch hazel.”
“Will I be able to walk on it tomorrow?” I asked.
“No, not easily.” He paused. “Actually, your granpa has been on crutches for many years?”
I nodded, “Yes sir.”
“No problem then. I’ll get you a pair of crutches. I know some were packed. If you’ve lived with someone who had to use them, at your age, I know full well you also learned to get around on them.” He paused and then grinned at me. “Even if you were told not to touch them.”
I laughed. “Zeke and I borrowed Granpa’s crutches all the time. He eventually made us our own, so he wouldn’t want to go somewhere and have to hop on one leg.” I shrugged. “That never happened, we always practiced in his sight, but he…” All of a sudden, I realized that Granpa had intentionally taught us how to use crutches. He had been laughing at us and with us, but making us our own crutches was clearly an effort to teach a skill.
“You OK there, Allen?” Doctor Sven asked as he looked towards me.
I closed my mouth. “I just realized that Granpa wasn’t just having fun with us when he made us our own crutches and had Zeke and I race each other on them.” I responded while playing back a few memories in my head.
“Using fun to disguise teaching useful skills? Sounds about right for a crafty old man.” He chuckled.
Then he put a pressure bandage on my leg. Things were not pleasant for a while, but the doctor did keep my mind occupied with stories about his youth on the ranch while it felt like he was twisting my leg off.
As he cleaned up, Doctor Sven started telling me what I needed to do and not do. “Keep the leg elevated when you sleep. For tonight, don’t take off your pants, just sleep in them.” He stood and tossed his pillow onto the crate lying on my bed. “I’ll want that back tomorrow, but you can use it tonight. I have a sleeping pillow.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
He started holding fingers up in the air, straightening one at a time as he gave me instructions. “Do not apply wet or dry heat to the leg today, or tomorrow, or the bruising might get worse. Do not remove the bandage or poultice without my permission. If the pain gets a little worse, that’s fine. If it gets a lot worse, tell me. Do you know what skin blanching is?”
“Subcutaneous blood flow indicator.” I repeated from health class. “Put pressure on light skin or a finger or toe nail and it should get a good bit lighter. When pressure is released, the skin or nail will darken quickly back to its prior shade when pressure is released.”
The doctor nodded. “Exactly. If you start to feel pins-and-needles sensations in your lower leg, start trying to find me. Also, if you get pins-and-needles check your foot in several places for blanching, and compare it to blanching on your other foot. If the blanching test fails, you have my permission in advance to immediately cut off the bandage. I’d rather have to replace the bandage than remove the leg below the knee.”
“Understood, sir.” I responded, nodding enthusiastically.
“I thought you might agree with me.” He commented with a smile. “I’ll replace the poultice three times tomorrow, before we move, after we stop, and then again before bed. The next morning, if it doesn’t get worse, I might decide to start putting a little bit of warmth on it for a few minutes and see how it reacts. If there aren’t complications. After four days I’ll have you soaking it in warm water for an hour every morning and night and drinking willow bark tea.”
I nodded, but said nothing.
He continued. “I want you to stay active if you can, since you can use crutches. I’ll talk to the other officers and we’ll figure out something for you to do.”
“Oh, sir, I forgot this. I reached into my pouch and pulled out the swine harness, carefully, and set it aside. Then I pulled out the rattlesnake head. I had checked after it was well and truly dead, and it no longer had fangs, having broken them off attacking the sapling I’d trapped it with.
“Ah, Emerald mentioned that there was a snake involved. I see it didn’t get away.” He paused, thinking. “I don’t have the extra horses here to make antivenins. There are some being sent that are already antivenin plasma producers, but they are a few days behind us.” He paused and then curiously brushed his fingers against the edge of the stump at the back of the snake’s head, and a few grains of sand fell off. “You carry sand in your bag? Why?”
My mind raced and I looked at the snake’s head. “I picked up a handful at the creek. It’s an idea I want to talk to Lieutenant Davis about.”
There was a pause, and then Doctor Sven slapped his hands together. “Well, if you toss that head on a campfire tomorrow for a few minutes and drag it out, it’ll be safe for your swine to eat. After the breakfast cooking is done, of course. You’d probably irritate the cook if you threw a snakehead in a cookfire when breakfast was being cooked.”
We both chuckled.
My stomach took that moment to make its displeasure known. I hadn’t eaten much at all that day. A good breakfast, the flatbread from Ma, and then some hardtack and dried fish that had been distributed while we were on the move.
Doctor Sven laughed at my stomach noises. “I’ll have one of the wagon park guards bring you a meal. You can move around if you have to, but I’d rather you not, at least until tomorrow morning.” He pointed at the folded harness next to my pouch. “That looks like it needs some cleaning before tomorrow.”
He was right. I started cleaning the harness, and one of the guards later brought a bowl of lukewarm rice and beans that tasted burnt but was still edible. After eating, I continued cleaning harness which had gotten bloody from the snake. A little while after finishing that, one of the guards handed a ball of straps that I was told had been delivered by Anu. She hadn’t been allowed access to the wagon park.
Except when I was eating, I stayed lying on my back with my right leg elevated on top of the pillowed crate. After I finished the harness and checked the straps, I rearranged everything so I’d only have to set the pillowed crate on the floor to make the inside of the carriage ready for travel.
I was still a bit hungry and feeling sorry for myself, so I opened the bag of flatbreads Marza had made for me and picked one that looked like the wax was coming off on one corner. They would keep a couple days without refrigeration, even unsealed, but it was best to eat the ones that might break seal first.
Blackberry and honey. And something else. I had to sniff several times and think before I recognized it. Honeysuckle. That brought back a lot of good memories of walking home from school in the fall with Marza, eating muscadines, blackberries, and honeysuckle as we alternately talked and teased each other. As we got older there was a lot of kissing and handholding, and the occasional sneaking into the bushes for explorations that our parents would have neither appreciated nor been surprised by, but that we were careful not to take too far.
Those warm memories helped me ignore the dull thump of my pulse under the pressure bandage, and I slept.
Granpa kneeled down in front of the two of us. Pa held each of us by one shoulder in front of him, my shoulder was at Pa’s hip, Zeke was a lot taller.
Granpa reached out a hand to each of our chins and held us firmly, but not painfully, staring us each in the eye in turn. “I need you two to watch carefully, and not turn away. Swine are obedient if trained well, and fed well, but if you aren’t giving them orders, or they aren’t fed, especially if they aren’t fed, they can hurt you, badly, fast.”
The swine had all been staring at us as we looked over the flat stone wall, making hungry noises. Even then, I knew that they expected to be fed, and were irritated that they hadn’t been. They were lined up a few feet from the fence, close to the feed trough. Some of them were rooting around, but there wasn’t much to be found in this enclosure, it was normally used for farrowing, and hadn’t grown back yet after the prior winter. Zeke and I had pulled out the old hay and bedding material the prior week and put it in the main house compost pit in the large swine holding enclosure.
Granpa picked up the front legs of the stillborn calf and Edward picked up the back legs.
“On the third forward swing, over the fence, Edward.” Granpa said.
Edward nodded, saying nothing.
They swung the corpse back and forth three times with Granpa counting, and after he said “three” they released the body and it went over the fence into the swine pen and flopped around on the ground.
The sows shied away from the body as it hit the ground, but the four adult boars were on top of it before it stopped moving. Seconds later, the corpse was hidden by swine bodies. About three minutes later, the boars and larger sows were carrying off bones. Smaller sows and a couple immature boars were rooting around for leftover bits.
Zeke and I stood stock-still.
Granpa had been watching us watch the swine. “Now you know why you never, ever forget to feed the swine, and never sleep on the ground around the farm. If the swine get hungry enough, they will break conditioning and jump the fence. They would have to be very hungry indeed to eat a live person, but you don’t want to be the rare example.”
I shot bolt upright in bed with a yell, my hands held over my face. Something was biting my leg! It hurt! I started to swing my arms to drive off the swine that were eating me and then suddenly realized that I’d been having a nightmare.
I fell back into the thin mattress of the bed and heard the swine grunting below me, with undertones of curiosity and hunger. The sound of swine making hungry noises when I was asleep explained the nightmare.
Granpa hadn’t warned me that this would happen, I thought, bitterly.
Stop being stupid, I thought to myself an instant later, realizing how absurd the prior thought had been.
My leg, no longer on the pillowed crate, was throbbing to my pulse, about a second per beat, rapidly slowing as I calmed down.
I could smell bread cooking, and no doubt the swine could too. I hadn’t gotten any bread last night, and based on how burnt the rice and beans had tasted, I wasn’t sure if I was upset about that or not. However, the swine would be upset if I didn’t get some sort of food into them.
I carefully, painfully, dragged myself into a seated position. It was still dark out, but the smell of fresh baking bread told me it probably wasn’t too long until dawn. I poked at my leg in the dark, trying to check for numbness.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I wasn’t sure which, my calf wasn’t numb. Each gentle pressure yielded a wincing pain. I carefully put on my shirt, pouch, belt, swine treat bag, and moccasins before taking the crate off the bed and putting it on the floor, with the doctor’s pillow on top. After that, I cautiously, painfully made my way across the carriage and out the door.
I pulled my staff out of the ceiling netting, and used it to support my weight as I looked around. I had no idea where the jakes were, and I didn’t want to leave a surprise for anyone to step in.
A short time later, I had two ration loaves of wheat bread made with raisins and onions. The tastes didn’t go well together, but I supposed that discouraging overeating might be part of the intent. It really wasn’t that bad.
I was directed to the jakes and the washing station, and shortly afterwards managed to salvage the leftovers from the prior day for my swine. The horses and elefants had refused to eat the burnt rice and beans when it had been offered to them. The head cook had seen my swine and saved the leftovers, knowing from her experience working in an inn that swine didn’t care if food was burnt. The city inns apparently sold all their kitchen wastes to pig farmers, and burnt food was no problem.
“Don’t expect to get this much waste often, Allen!” she admonished me. “I’m not used to cooking on meerschaum-coated concrete. I’ve been cooking in good glass for forty years.” She threw up her hands in the air with a flourish as she walked away from me and the large leather sack of waste. “I have no idea why anyone would cook like this, but I have to. None of my helpers have ever cooked on this stuff before, either. None of us have ever heard of anyone cooking on it. It’s five times heavier than even cheap glass.” She spun around to look at me again, squinting. “Pol, help this young man carry the waste sack to the wagon park.”
An older balding man stood up from where he had been tending a fire, and tapped the woman next to him, who nodded. He walked over to me, and nodded to me but said nothing as he picked up the bag.
“Thanks, Mrs. Zeta.” I smiled at her and she gave me a nod.” I turned to Pol. “Thank you too, Pol. I’m Allen.”
“I heard.” He nodded, not unfriendly, but not friendly. “You’re over at the wagon park?”
The guards refused to allow Pol past the wagons, so I just had him pour the waste food on the ground next to the road at the edge of the wagon park. After I thanked him, he took the empty waste food bag back to the cooking fires.
I hobbled over to the carriage and put one of my rations of bread inside the carriage, and the remaining half of the other in my pocket. Then I let the swine out, and led them over to the pile of waste food. Thirty kilos of badly burnt rice and beans wasn’t enough to fill the swine up, so I hobbled around with them, letting them root around the camp, keeping them away from the hitched elefants and horses, and human jakes.
Swine could (and happily would) consume animal and human waste. I wouldn’t let them, unless I knew it had been heated to over the boiling point of water and kept there for thirty minutes. At the farm, all of our pig, human, cow, and horse waste went through a separate compost pile and then into the field with a spreader. The swine didn’t get to touch it until a crop had been growing a month in the soil. Pig toilets were used in some far northern communities, I knew, but we discouraged it when asked. The disease vectors were pretty frightening, especially in warm climates. Just thinking about it made me shudder.
I needed to consider the possibilities though. If I could set up a heating station away from camp, there would be more than enough waste to feed the swine, between elefants, horses, and people. If I had to. I really would rather just feed them forage, but I had to keep my mind open. Trying to forage in the deep woods on crutches was just another accident waiting to happen, and I still wasn’t sure how bad my leg was damaged.
After I hobbled around the camp in near-darkness for a while, staying within sight and hearing of the wagon park, I leaned against a small white oak while the swine happily ate acorns. Reaching into my pouch, I pulled out the snake’s head and threw it away. Cooking the thing would be too much effort for less than a quarter kilo of lean meat and bone.
When dawn finally gave me enough light to read, I pulled Ma’s letter out of my pouch and read the rules again to verify I had memorized them accurately. Tearing up the three sheets took a second. Balling up the pieces took a few more seconds. My swine happily ate the hemp-based paper as treats.
The next several minutes were filled with some very troublesome thoughts.
As I hobbled back to camp, I wasn’t sure whether or not Ma would appreciate what I was planning to do with the knowledge she’d given me. Worse, I wasn’t sure what Albert would do if it came to his attention.
I sighed to myself and put aside my reservations as I hobbled back to the wagon park. Doctor Sven would probably be waiting for me, to replace the poultice.
Maybe I’m wrong? I thought to myself, hopefully.
If not, there really wasn’t anything else I could do, and still live with myself if we failed.
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