After Doctor Sven checked the circulation in my lower leg, tested my pain levels a bit, and replaced the poultice, he was good enough to help me get the swine in harness. The swine wouldn’t listen to him very well, so he couldn’t help directly. Still, he knew enough about harness to hand them to me without tangling them into a knot. With my calf being what it was, the less walking I had to do, the better.
He had also brought a pair of crutches, which were a little bit short. Not short enough to make them unusable, but short enough to be uncomfortable.
“I was hoping those would be tall enough.” He grumbled when I tried them out.
I shrugged. “I can still use them. I can find a couple saplings and make a crutch or two later, maybe.”
The doctor looked at me for a moment, confused. “No. We have two carpenters who brought tools. They will be able to make crutches that won’t blister or bruise your armpits faster than you can.”
I hobbled over on one of the short crutches and checked the swine that were in harness again, “Why take up their time for something I can do myself? I’m sure the other officers have things for the carpenters to be doing.”
He slapped the side of the carriage hard enough that it startled me. “Allen, I am an officer. I will ask one of the carpenters to make you crutches. You are not an officer, you will not gainsay me.” He started to climb carefully up onto the bench seat of the carriage. “That doesn’t mean you can’t discuss it with me, but I don’t see you saying anything that will change what we have planned for you to do.”
I opened my mouth as I stared at him, while I was still leaning over Hoss and Bigboy. He said ‘we.’
I shook my head and closed my mouth. “I see. So what will I be doing?”
“Several people spoke favorably of the brief lessons you gave with regards to how to handle and care for an axe. Quartermaster Brown and one of the carpenters took a couple of those people to the side to demonstrate what you taught, and were satisfied. We were going to have you teach others how to use and care for axes and other tools you can demonstrate proficiency in. That was before we discovered you had been injured.”
“I see, and now that I am injured, there’s no need to change plans.”
“Exactly.” The doctor pulled a small, thick book from his pouch. “While we travel today, I’m going to test your knowledge of plants that can potentially be of use to me, which might be found in the area that we are setting up our permanent camp.”
The half day we spent on the road was full of me discovering how little I really understood about medically useful plants. I recognized most of the plants, but many of them had uses I’d never heard of before. Unfortunately, most of those uses required careful and very precise processing.
Sodium nitroprusside, for example, could be processed from cyanide extracted from apple seeds, or the pits of peaches, and apricots. Doctor Sven explained that it could be used to reduce blood pressure dramatically, enough to make it useful for surgery. But if made wrong or administered incorrectly, it was deadly. Before that day, I’d only known that it wasn’t good to allow swine to eat large amounts of those seeds or pits because of the cyanide. That was one of many interesting tidbits of herbal chemistry that would be of little use to me alone, but would allow me to assist in helping the doctor maintain medical stores after his medical building was established, the equipment set up, and a couple pharmacists arrived from New Charleston.
The half day on the road wasn’t terrible, despite the fact that every significant bounce or bump of the carriage caused me a spike of pain as I used the leg to keep myself balanced on the bench. The doctor’s quizzing and testing helped me take my mind off the pain.
Getting off the carriage was something of a relief, even though getting onto my feet was a bit painful. My leg was stiff and my shoulder and wrist were irritating me.
Doctor Sven joined the other officers as they gathered together, and then wandered back and forth along the road, pointing here and there, clearly trying to decide how to set up camp. Quartermaster Brown had several sheets of paper, and was scribbling notes between his own comments.
The wagon park was established first, and guards assigned. The cooks were already starting fires and unloading the cooking equipment that they hated, as well as the rice and beans which would become the afternoon meal.
We were on the New Charleston side of the Crooked River, which defined the border between New Charleston and New Tokyo. Looking downhill, the bridge crossing the river was a skeleton of stone. There were several fresh blackened spots next to the bridge indicating where the heavy timbers and planks that used to be the roadbed across the bridge had gone.
The burn marks were on our side, and anyone from New Tokyo would certainly want to maintain the bridge to transport food. I was certain our scouts were responsible.
This river was narrower than the Mud River that passed fairly close to town and continued inland to New Charleston, but the water was moving much faster, and the bed was rocky. Crossing here without a bridge would be dangerous. The terrain was much steeper here than near town, but there might be better river crossings upstream or downstream.
I’ve got better things to do than daydream. I muttered to myself under my breath, turning back to my carriage.
According to what Doctor Sven had said, I would be teaching people how to use axes, adzes, and wedges soon to anyone that couldn’t prove competency. After I taught the basics of use and safety, the workers would be sent to start cutting trees, working with the three retired elefants.
None of that would start until after the immediate camp needs like the jakes, washing station, and cooking area were set up. I wouldn’t have been able to assist with labor like that in my then-current state, so I was sure I had at least a few minutes. I quickly set the carriage’s wheel chocks, and dropped the slats through the holes in the carriage baseboard to establish a pen for the swine. That wasn’t to confine them immediately, but rather to be able to confine them rapidly if needed. It took another five minutes to remove all the leashes and harnesses, and store them inside the carriage.
I painfully climbed onto the carriage bench and stood, turning around, looking for oak, fruit, or nut trees. There were quite a few persimmon trees along the road, but they wouldn’t be ripe yet. I saw what looked to be a small stand of red oak close by, downhill and to the downstream side of the road.
Marking trees that can provide forage so they won’t be chopped down for firewood would be a good idea, I thought to myself.
I carefully climbed down from the carriage, making sure to put my good leg on the ground first to hold my weight. Blowing my whistle lightly, I gave the command for my swine to follow. The sows hadn’t done much more than start to crop grass and sniff the turf. Hoss and Bigboy, of course, had already begun rooting, but hadn’t created a significant walking hazard yet.
Carefully, I crutched my way a little downhill before crossing the low stone mound, making certain to use one of my crutches to tap around to disturb any possible snakes. I found no unpleasant surprises. The swine hopped the short stone pile after me, and were eagerly searching for edibles in the new forest, a place they had never been before.
Looking up and downhill, I noticed something odd. The roadside piles of broken paving stones near the top of the slope between the bridge and the flat land were tall, but just a few meters downhill, they were very short. The piles at the base of the hill near the bridge were very tall again. For a few seconds, that puzzled me and then I realized why after recalling some conversations with the Donal, Teak’s mahout. Elefants were not comfortable walking sideways on slopes more than a few degrees, so stones replaced in the road on a steep hill would normally be moved downhill or even uphill, rather than to the sides.
I nodded my head, certain I’d figured it out. The low stone piles along the side of the steeper downslope had likely been created by crews of humans without elefants, at some point when there was a lack of road elefants or a large project somewhere that needed the road elefants for an extended time.
Red oak acorns were not a favorite of my swine due to the high tannin content, but they would eat them readily enough. There were about twenty red oaks close together here and several more nearby, farther from the camp. When I looked carefully, I could see a fairly substantial crop of acorns still in the trees. If I could manage it, the red oaks should also be marked for preservation since there were plenty of other hardwoods to cut, and these were on the downslope, where it wasn’t likely we would be trying to build any buildings.
Several minutes later, I heard the sounds of labor starting. Shovels and dirt. I heard some complaints from people throwing dirt on one another and chuckled to myself. I had asked if I needed to teach people how to use shovels too, and Doctor Sven had just stared at me like I was making fun of him. I’d dropped it, not really confident in my own belief that they would need teaching. A shovel really wasn’t that hard to figure out.
At the same time, I’d had a taste of how little city folk know about manual labor. Anu and the others had learned quickly enough, but they just didn’t have any exposure to how to use manual labor tools.
It didn’t take long before I heard someone speaking loudly. The sound of digging stopped. There were explanations that right-handers and left-handers should not work in mixed groups. Everyone should watch where they were throwing dirt, and not throw it on other people, or into holes others had already dug. The sounds of digging resumed, much more regularly, and with far fewer curses.
The swine had mostly filled up, and I needed to get back to camp, but I needed to water them. I blew my whistle, pointed at the river, and said ‘water’.
The swine all looked at me for a moment before turning downhill and walking down to the river. None of them seemed irritated at being given a command requiring them to move, so they had clearly found enough to at least take the edge off their hunger.
I watched them wander down to the river, drink in the shallows, and then start to wallow and roll in the water and mud. I left them alone for about three minutes, until I saw they had all had a good drink and wallow, specifically watching Hoss and Bigboy to make sure they drank strongly.
Whistling again, I called the swine up the hill to me, and gave them each an acorn I’d picked up off the ground as a treat. Crutching towards the carriage was made slightly inconvenient by Speedy’s playfulness now that she’d gotten some food into herself. She was fascinated by the extra two legs I was using, constantly bumping my crutches as I walked. I didn’t discipline her, because she wasn’t bumping the crutches hard enough to unbalance me, just touching them as they hit the ground, and then hopping away when I lifted them again.
“You’re a little troublemaker, aren’t you?” I said in a playful voice as she leapt backwards about a quarter-meter, landing in front of me after nose-bumping my crutches again.
Since I was looking at her while speaking, Speedy tilted her head slightly in obvious confusion, parsing the sounds I’d made for commands.
“Yes, you.” I said in her direction as I swung my crutches forward again and planted them.
Speedy looked at me, clearly puzzled. When the crutches moved again, she shook her head and hopped forward, tapping the crutches again with her snout as they hit the ground. The game continued all the way to the carriage, much to my amusement.
The guards in the wagon park also got a good chuckle watching Speedy’s antics. “How big will they get, Allen?” Gloria asked. Veta showed some interest too. The two guards and I had finally traded names that morning.
“Hmm, the two biggest ones are male, fully grown. Boars of this breed can get bigger, but usually not much bigger. The biggest male I’ve seen that we didn’t cull early was about half again their size, and he didn’t grow fast to start, he just kept growing.” I paused. “These two mass almost twice as much as a big man. The biggest four of the remaining nine are full-grown females.” I pointed out the four biggest sows. “Sows with genetics we want can occasionally get bigger, but not by a whole lot. If they grow too fast, we cull them unless they are exceptionally clever or tractable. We’ve never kept a sow even close to the size of a normal adult male like Hoss or Bigboy there.”
The two boars snorted and turned, looking up at me as I spoke their names. After about three seconds of me not giving commands, they started snuffling around and eating grass. They would start rooting soon. “I’d love to stop and talk, but I need to get them under the carriage before they start rooting too much. I’d rather not be responsible for any broken ankles.”
“Do they make good pets?” Veta asked as I hobbled away on the too-short crutches.
“Sure, the sows do. Not so much the boars unless you can keep them outdoors after they get to about six months old. My family sells some every year to people that keep them indoors like household dogs. Sometimes they are sold as long-term pets. Most people buy them to convert kitchen and table scraps into meat. I can talk to you about them later if you like, and show you how leash-obedient they can be.” I shrugged. “For now, I have to go teach some people how to use tools.”
Gloria and Veta watched as I walked towards my carriage, chuckling and talking to each other as Speedy kept playing with the crutches.
I wonder if we could make more sales of swine as novelty pets if we had Abe and Molly take well-trained little ones like Speedy on walks in town when Ma and Pa went for supplies. I made a mental note to pass that idea on to the family.
I settled the swine under the carriage without difficulty. Even though my swine could handle heat better than larger farm pigs, they still preferred to nap in the shade in the middle of the day. The underside of the carriage was a place they wanted to be.
Training with axes, adzes, and wedges went well. Almost everyone picked up the basics of use, safety, and maintenance quickly. It wasn’t organic chemistry, and even the slower people didn’t need many things explained twice. Learning to use the tools efficiently was a different story. I was satisfied with safety first. Efficiency would handle itself in time.
By the time I had taught everyone sent to me how to use basic woodcutting tools safely, our lunchtime beans and rice were ready. I needed to talk to the officers about marking the trees that could provide forage. I also wanted to talk about what Rikard had done the day before, in town, but that would probably have to wait. Doctor Sven knew the officers better than I did, so consulting him first about Rikard made sense. I didn’t want to sound like a complainer, and he might be able to help me figure out a safe way to make sure that Rikard and I crossed paths as little as possible without seeming like I was trying to game the system somehow.
I got to the front of the line to get my bowl of rice and beans, and realized there was a problem. I had two crutches. I had two hands. The wooden bowl was not small enough to grip in my teeth, though I considered it.
The cook stared at me briefly, with my bowl in his hands, and chuckled. “Can someone help this fellow carry his bowl?”
A few feet behind me, I heard a familiar voice laugh. “I will. Step aside for a bit, Allen. I’ll get both of our bowls when it’s my turn in line.” Anu’s voice. I stepped aside, and a couple minutes later, I was crutching along beside Anu, going towards the officer’s tent.
She looked a bit uncomfortable. “I don’t have much time to eat, Allen. The mahouts are teaching us to control how trees fall with ropes, and how to judge the best way to make a tree fall so the elefants can drag them back to camp. I’m expected back soon.”
“Understood, Anu, I need to talk to the officers about something though. We need to protect the trees that can provide forage through the fall. If there’s a line, I’ll just sit somewhere and eat beforehand.”
There was a line, so Anu and I sat on the ground near the end of the line and ate.
“You know” Anu started, “The mahouts say that the elefants will get upset and intentionally work slower if the trees fall wrong on the terrain.” She paused. “That just doesn’t sound like it’s possible.”
I sighed inwardly at that, before answering. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?” I paused for a moment and let a little wave of jealousy for the mahouts pass through me. “I’ve worked with Teak before, as community service. Not directly giving her commands, but I’ve worked around her and interacted with her. There were times when I thought she was smarter than some people I know. She did forestry labor for decades before she retired. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she gets a bit upset when things aren’t done the way she expects them to be done.”
Anu was silent, steadily scooping her rice and beans into her mouth with the folded piece of corn husk she was using as a spoon. Strangely, the militia equipment didn’t include spoons. I’d eaten with my fingers the night before, but I had been too hungry to really be concerned about it.
I looked at the folded piece of husk in my own hand and realized that I should probably carve myself a spoon, or I’d be eating with my fingers soon. The husks probably came from the animal fodder wagons, and weren’t very durable, nor were they sanitary for multiple uses.
After a couple seconds of silence, Anu spoke again. “The elefants look almost eager to work. They eat all the time, but as they are chewing, we can see they are staring at us while we learn to set up the ropes and chop the trees.”
I smiled to myself, and perhaps a little outwardly as well, since Anu smiled back. “I bet they miss it. They did it for so long. Draft horses seem to enjoy working if they are in good health; I got the sense that Teak did too. It’s a bit harder to tell though. Elefants don’t prance.” I had a bit of an unpleasant thought, and frowned. “I hope they are careful. The mahouts, I mean. Teak and the other two elefants are retired, they might hurt themselves.”
Nodding at me, Anu smiled. “Someone asked that already. The mahouts weren’t worried. They said the elefants would only pull the trees, not lift them. They also said that a full six-wheeled wagon with water and a load of sand and stone is harder to pull than most of the trees we have around here, provided that the stump end of the tree is tapered.”
That made sense to me. We ate in silence for a few more seconds.
“Are they feeding you enough?” I asked, looking at her bowl. When she had offered me the fuller bowl after I sat, I’d taken the less full one instead.
She nodded, hesitantly. “I’ll lose mass, but I have mass to lose. Being hungry is something I’m used to because of how I train. I can lose twenty kilos and be fine. Thirty would put me at competition mass, but without the right diet, some of what I lose will be muscle.” She poked at her food briefly, and then started eating again.
After a moment, she continued speaking. “How about that leg of yours? You’re walking on it so it can’t be that bad, but how bad is it?”
I poked absent-mindedly at my bowl of rice and beans. “It’s just a bad bruise, at least that’s what the doctor thinks. Tomorrow we’ll try soaking it in hot water. If there’s no worsening, I’ll be soaking it a lot more. I should be off crutches in a few days at most, I hope.”
When we both finished, Anu stood and took my bowl before offering me a hand up.
I accepted and she pulled me to my feet with an ease that amazed me again, despite my memories of what I’d seen her do the night before.
“I’ll take your bowl back to the cooks, Allen.”
“Thanks, Anu, I appreciate that.” Leaning onto my right crutch, I plucked the piece of folded husk out of her fingers. “No need to find a place to throw that away, the swine will be happy to take care of it.”
We waved a brief goodbye as Anu walked back to the cooking area, and I got in line behind a half a dozen people waiting to speak with Lieutenant Davis and Doctor Sven, who were sitting at a small wooden table, listening to each person who approached.
All of the people in front of me were middle-aged or older. Some of them were asking for labor to help them set up their facilities. Others poked the drawing and indicating that they would rather have their facilities in a different place. Two of them, stone carvers, were upset because they were being put in the same facility, and they didn’t want the other to see their trade secrets. They didn’t sound cross with one another, they just didn’t want to be in the same facility.
Lieutenant Davis handled most of the discussions, but on two occasions, Doctor Sven spoke when there was a sanitation or water supply issue involved. A tanner managed to get the planned position of his facility moved south by about half a kilometer. Nobody else was having any luck getting plans altered.
Doctor Sven looked up at us as I approached, and frowned slightly. “Allen, I’ll be done here in a few minutes, and will be able to change your poultice then.”
“It’s not about that, sir. I came about something else.”
Doctor Sven gave me a sharp look. “About what happened in town before we left?”
“No, sir. I don’t think that would be good to discuss in the open.”
Doctor Sven relaxed. Lieutenant Davis looked at Doctor Sven and then back at me, nodding. “Spit it out then. People behind you need our time too.”
“Yes, sir. A lot of people in camp don’t know what trees will produce edible forage. I think we need to mark those trees so they won’t get cut or damaged unless absolutely necessary. There are plenty of non-forage trees for firewood and building.”
Lieutenant Davis looked up at me for a second, thinking, and then nodded. “Good idea. Get with Quartermaster Brown and handle it. I’m sure he’ll see it as a good idea, but if he doesn’t agree, don’t argue, just come back to me and tell me.” He paused. “Next time you have a food or materials related question, go to Quartermaster Brown before me. You’d probably already be in the forest marking trees if you’d gone to him first.”
“Yes, sir.” I left and hobbled my way over to the wagon park, following the occasional sounds of the quartermaster’s voice. As I got closer, I just followed the people running towards the wagon park carrying papers, and tried to mostly stay out of the way of people with papers, bags, and crates that were coming the other way.
I got into another line. This line was moving quickly. The quartermaster was seated inside a wagon that had a desk built into it. People were walking up and handing him papers. He would look at the papers, mark them, and then call a receipt number before starting to call the names of people, names of items, and quantities. Every now and then, he would consult a chart on the wall next to his desk. Once, I saw him get up and get an item himself, from behind his desk. After he stopped yelling out an order of materials, he would grab a sheet of paper from a stack and begin writing at a mad pace. Shortly after that, he would hand what he’d written to the person in front of him.
There were about two dozen wagons parked next to the road, forming one entire side of the wagon park, facing the road. As each person received their paper from the quartermaster in exchange for the paper they handed him, they would go from wagon to wagon, being handed items. Each time they were handed an item, the person in the wagon wrote on the paper, and the person picking up items wrote on the paper as well. It was a fairly smooth operation, it seemed. Occasionally, someone would yell for a correction or a check on a receipt number and the quartermaster would dig through his pile, check a paper, and call out instructions again.
When it was my turn, Quartermaster Brown looked at me. “Requisition?”
“I…” I paused. “I don’t have one. I’d like to mark nearby trees that can provide edible forage, so we don’t cut them down before we can get a harvest from them, sir.”
Quartermaster Brown stared at me for about three seconds. “You can identify the trees accurately?”
I nodded. “Yes sir. I know my trees.”
“Done. You’ve got a job.” He looked down, probably at my leg since the pants leg was rolled up to help the bandage breathe a bit. “You’re the boy with the pigs, right?”
Swine. I thought, but didn’t say.
Instead, I said “Yes, sir.”
“You can move around in the woods on that leg?”
“Yes sir, not quickly, but I could mark nearby trees.”
He picked up a piece of paper, and started yelling as he wrote on it. “Receipt two-twenty-eight. Karl, light hemp twine, small bale. Zana, red ribbon, small spool.” He looked down at me. “You got a knife, son?”
“Yes, sir.” I replied, half-mesmerized by how fast he was writing, his pencil scribbling at a furious pace.
With a flourish, he finished writing and handed me the page. “Here you go then. After you collect the ribbon and twine, go find all three mahouts and tell them you will be marking trees for them to avoid cutting. Show them how you plan to mark the trees and ask them to make sure that all the loggers know the markings. Show them this receipt; it has your orders on it too. When you’re done marking what you can today, bring the leftover twine and ribbon back.”
“Yes, sir.” I looked down at the sheet I saw a receipt number, the list of materials, and the names of the mahouts. Below that were instructions for me to mark trees that could provide edibles for humans, and advisements to the mahouts that trees marked by me were not to be cut. If possible, said trees were to also be protected from damage by other falling trees.
The quartermaster looked up from furiously scribbling on another sheet of paper. “Don’t just stand there, son, move!” He paused. “As fast as you can on the crutches anyway.” Looking down he continued to write as I walked down the line of wagons to collect the twine and ribbon. Behind me, I heard the quartermaster tell the next person in line behind me to wait a moment for him to finish duplicating my request.
From there, I crutched to my carriage. Doctor Sven wasn’t there, so I continued towards the officer’s tent. The doctor saw me coming as I approached and tapped Lieutenant Davis on the arm. They spoke briefly, quietly, and then the doctor stood, picking up his first aid kit from a stool next to him and walking quickly to me. “Let’s make this quick. The captain wants to have an all officer’s meeting soon. Lieutenant Baker is in consultation with him now.”
Doctor Sven poked and prodded my leg again, found nothing worrisome, and the poultice was replaced. There wasn’t any small talk this time. He worked quickly and packed his bag with careful haste before telling me to make sure to be at my carriage at dark for another changing. After giving me my instructions, he walked rapidly back to the officer’s tent.
I considered letting the swine out and having them follow me around, but decided against it; they had already rooted out the grass under the carriage and seemed content to lay there. I’d move a little faster without Speedy playing with my crutches anyway.
Finding the elefants and loggers was very simple. The loggers made lots of noise, and the elefants were immense, impossible to miss in the old growth forest. The mahouts gave me no problems with the orders. Donal knew me, and the other two, Keef and Nana, were nice enough. They immediately understood and agreed with preserving the trees that could help feed us. There were apparently similar policies in place in New Ecuador, where all three of them had come from, to preserve immature and fruit-bearing trees. I showed them the twine and red ribbon, and gave them each a sample of both so they could show it to the loggers.
Then I started a circuit of the camp, concentrating on the areas I could remember from the diagram of the planned facilities that had been in front of Lieutenant Davis. There were persimmons in a few places alongside the road, with very immature fruit. The locusts had done a good bit of damage to their leaves, but the fruits seemed mostly untouched. Almost nothing would eat a hard green persimmon.
In the nearby forest, I found a lot of oaks, mostly red and white. There were some walnut trees, even a couple pecan trees. I also found what looked to be an ancient pear orchard, but I only saw a couple trees with more than a handful of immature pears. The trees were ancient and nearly dead, shaded out by much taller and leafier trees that had grown around them. I marked the pear trees that were actually bearing fruit.
I even found about a hundred maple trees in a stand that had clearly been planted intentionally. Four straight rows of about twenty-five trees remained. There had once been around two hundred, it looked like, but many were missing. The old maples that remained were shading out almost everything trying to grow under them.
After seeing how many trees were missing from the maple stand, I realized that there weren’t many downed trees in the forest. The nearby farms were obviously harvesting deadfall in this area, much as my family did in the bit of unclaimed land we bordered on. The nearest farm I could remember seeing evidence of was at least three kilometers south though. After a few seconds thinking about it, I decided that the nearby farm was likely making charcoal, lye, or perhaps they had a small lumber mill if there was a river tributary that they could harness for power.
I turned my attention back to the maples. Maples were uncommon this far south, and Granpa had mentioned once that he’d looked into it, and the two fairly small ones we had near the farm were not worth tapping for the little bit of syrup we’d get from them. Since my family had never done it, I didn’t know how to tap them for sap to make syrup, but someone in camp might.
After about two hours, I’d carefully crutched my way through the area I knew would be under development for the camp. I headed back to get my sounder, so I could take them out again to feed them. I had also found a clearing with a lot of large, burnt stumps. The clearing had heavy blackberry growths, but they had been picked through fairly thoroughly by animals. There were a lot of unripe berries though, so if we got a human presence into the clearing and chased off the wildlife, we would get a decent harvest of blackberries in the next few weeks.
As I crutched back into camp towards the wagon park, I noticed a dozen or so very dirty men and women tending some tired-looking horses. They all had bows. I was almost certain they were scouts before I got close enough to recognize any of them. If I remembered right, there were supposed to be about twenty scouts, so this would be a bit more than half of them. I needed to talk to Riko in any case. I’d had an idea, and wanted his input.
I approached the scouts and asked if Riko was in camp. They said he was, but had gone to the officer’s meeting with Lieutenant Baker. They were busy tending to animals that needed a lot of tending, so I didn’t pester them with questions. I did let them know that they might want to bring their own spoons to dinner, if they had them.
That got a couple chuckles, and a couple genuine thanks. Eating with improvised tableware was annoying. At the very least, they could probably carve something out of a branch before they got a bowl in their hands. I would also try to find time to do the same. Based on how many oak and nut trees I was finding, I was fairly sure I would run out of ribbon before dark. If I did, I would stop and carve a couple spoons when I found a spot for the swine to settle in for a good feed.
I really needed to talk to Riko, but I couldn’t just wait around for him to come out of the officer’s meeting. At the same time, there was absolutely no way I was going to barge in on the officers to ask to talk to Riko about something personal. The officer’s tent had guards like the wagon park did, so I wouldn’t even be allowed to try – even if I were foolish enough to want to. I did check if the guards knew how long the meeting would last, and they said no.
Since I didn’t know when Riko would be available, I ended up taking my swine out without seeing him. I wasn’t too far from the clearing I’d found when I finally ran out of ribbon, so I returned to it and let the swine start to root. I actively worked to keep them away from the blackberries. Swine could survive on a grass and turf diet; it just took more time eating to keep them at a healthy weight.
After settling the swine in the middle of the clearing, I walked around it’s borders, rubbing my hands on trees and blackberry leaves in order to put a strong human scent all around the area. The scent by itself would discourage wild animals from grazing on the blackberries. I would also point hunters in this direction. The deer and turkey sign were heavy. A couple kills in the area, and the scent of multiple humans and animal blood would have most herbivores moving away. Carnivores and omnivores would be a different story, but hunters could handle them as well, if needed.
Immediately after marking the clearing perimeter with my scent, I broke off a few branches and returned to the center of the clearing, found a rock to sit on, and started whittling spoons. It got me off my feet, was somewhat relaxing, and simple enough that I could keep an eye on the swine while I also made plans for the future.
The clearing would be where I’d feed the swine when I wasn’t actively foraging. If I was in a hurry to get them fed, I’d lead the swine to acorns instead. Swine could survive fine on grazing and rooting in grass. Humans typically didn’t eat acorns, but if they were prepared right to remove tannins, acorn meal could be used as a decent flour substitute. Most of the other farm folk doubtlessly knew how to prepare acorns too, even if it wasn’t a favorite food of most people. The tanner would even be able to use the tannin from the acorn-soaking water in the leather treatment process once his shop was set up to process the hides of game animals that were hunted.
All in all, I felt pretty good about being able to forage well in the nearby forest. The problem was that there were so many people. We were up to at least three hundred now, and from what the doctor had said over the last two days, there would be almost that many more before this road encampment was completed. Six hundred people was far too many to support from forest mast without a vast area to forage in, and we only had this side of the river to forage in with the bridge dismantled. Our required travel distance for foraging would be absurd for a single staging point. We would need to set up storage waypoints for forage, or even multiple foraging camps. I hoped someone else had brought this up, but that would be something to mention to Riko or Doctor Sven, to see if they knew if it had been brought up. If not, I’d take it to Quartermaster Brown.
When I noticed the shadows were growing long and the light in the clearing was starting to grey a bit, I called the swine together and started crutching back to the road. I had made a half dozen spoons while my swine foraged, so even when idle, I’d been doing something useful. I would have preferred to have been gathering forage myself, but with my leg being what it was, I didn’t want to do that until the doctor was no longer concerned about it.
I coaxed my swine under the carriage and made sure they were settling in before going to see if I could find Anu or Riko, or both of them. I found Anu first, and gave her a spoon, which she greatly appreciated. Anu invited me to eat with her and a couple others. I agreed, and she carried my bowl of beans and rice to where we met with Kelvin, Sara, and Ely. They had all four been training with the mahouts, and had successfully felled a few trees. There had been a few incidents with hornets and wasps that left everyone on the lumbering team a bit itchy and sore, and they all had pretty ugly looking blisters on their hands.
When Kelvin and Ely complained about their hands, I told them they would form callus fairly quickly and their hands would no longer hurt. Anu and Sara nodded knowingly, but the two men looked at me like I was crazy. I let them see my hands up close. Sara leaned in to look, and nodded, commenting that her hands were soft right now because her work on the farm for the last couple years had been milking cows and tending chickens – work that didn’t create heavy callus. She also made a slightly off-color comment about how the cows didn’t much appreciate rough, callused hands, so she moisturized her hands with the same soap that she made her husband use.
I made a note of that. The idea had never crossed my mind before – I would definitely need to talk to Marza about it. Judging from Pa’s hands, and the existence of myself and my siblings, not all women were like Sara in that regard. My mind started going into directions of thought that I preferred to avoid when it came to my parents, so I shook my head while trying to drop the line of thought. I knew I was probably blushing a bit, but everyone was laughing, so I didn’t feel too noticeable.
After the laughs died down, Anu mentioned that she got calluses from her exercises, but it had been the off-season for several months. At the same time, she was highly unhappy with the idea of developing calluses like mine. Kelvin and Ely, both city-dwellers without much experience working with their hands, were surprised that human skin could build up such a heavy protective layer, and wanted to know if they could make it build up faster. I told them to talk to the quartermaster and see if they had brought enough salt to make supersaturated saltwater. It would burn blisters like mad, but it would dramatically increase the speed of callus formation.
Several nearby folks had been listening in after they overheard us talking, and a general chat developed between the people familiar with manual labor, and those not, explaining about how to encourage or prevent callus. Once that conversation got started around the cook fires, it got a life of its own, and our group didn’t have to contribute any longer, though I got poked a couple times and asked to show my calluses. I didn’t really mind – I could see a few others showing people their hands, almost certainly doing the same thing. It was weird, but it seemed to relax some people with pretty serious blisters, helping them realize they would eventually not be in so much pain.
They will curse me when they put those blistered hands in salt water though, if the quartermaster has enough to spare, I thought with some amusement.
After the five of us had finished eating, the others left to see if they could get salt from the quartermaster. Anu took my bowl again, and all four of them thanked me for the spoons. I nodded and told them to let me know if they broke theirs, and I could make them another, or maybe teach them how to make one of their own, if they had a good glass knife.
It felt decidedly weird to be talking so freely with people I didn’t really know. I didn’t really mind, but it just felt odd. The other four didn’t seem bothered by it at all, even though it was obvious they were strangers to one another. For a couple minutes I thought about it, but then realized that I didn’t really care that it felt odd to talk to others like that.
I shrugged and carefully got myself to my feet and crutched around, looking for the scouts. I found them, all together, including Riko.
As I approached, Riko spotted me and called out. “I heard that you saved us from eating with our fingers or having to walk back and forth to the horse lines for spoons, Allen, thank you.” He chuckled and looked around at the other scouts. “Allen here plans to be my son-by-marriage if things stay sunny-side-up.”
Nodding, I said “No problem, glad I could help. After you eat though, I’d like to talk to you about something private, Mr. Gonzalez, if you would.”
Riko looked up at me with a bit of an odd expression, but didn’t say anything. I was fairly certain it wasn’t because I’d called him Mr. Gonzalez. He probably wouldn’t want me to call him Riko in front of the other scouts since he was a sergeant.
Sergeant Gonzalez. I wanted to slap myself in the head, but didn’t. That would just make it worse.
I shrugged. “Not now, sergeant. My carriage is in the wagon park, and I have to go meet Doctor Sven to put another poultice on this leg. If the guards at the wagon park won’t let you in…”
“They will let me into the wagon park, Allen. I’ll come talk to you later. Go get Doctor Sven to look at that leg again.” He paused. “I want to hear your story about the snake and I bet these ladies and gentlemen would as well. What we did hear through the grapevine sounded like a real heart spike moment.”
“Definitely wasn’t anything I could sleep through, that’s for certain.” There were chuckles and nods from several scouts. “I can tell you about it later if you like. Doctor Sven might already be looking for me, and I’d rather not keep him waiting.” I managed to say all of that without sounding too foolish, I was fairly confident.
There were more chuckles from the gathered scouts, and Riko waved me away “Go. Don’t waste time here. There will be plenty of time for stories later.”
I went to my carriage, lit the carriage lantern, and started cleaning and oiling swine harnesses. Doctor Sven arrived at my carriage a few minutes later, and I put the harness aside. After a lot of poking and prodding that was still very painful, but not terrible, a new poultice was put on my leg. We made an arrangement for a short hot soak in the morning, and a new poultice.
I resumed servicing the harnesses. A few minutes later, Riko showed up. “What did you need to speak to me about, Allen?” He seemed a little wary for some reason.
I smiled at him. “Well, Riko, I know that you and my Granpa have been discussing land in this area as a place for Marza and me to settle at first, since it was undeveloped and currently unclaimed. I’ve been scouting the woods today, marking trees we can get forage from, so they won’t get cut down for lumber or firewood. While doing that, I’ve been looking at the lay of the land and I really like the west side of the road.”
Riko nodded. “This area is one of the better spots, land-wise. Good farmland. Close to water, with no real chance of flooding due to the embankment. It’s pretty far from anything though. You won’t have much work for your swine other than your own farm. Shipping crops out will be a bit more expensive too. The river’s not navigable.”
Nodding in agreement, I couldn’t help but grin. I started speaking softly, under my breath, so that not even the nearby guards could hear. “Remember the part of the plan where Marza and I would probably need to spend a couple years clearing lumber and establishing fields before reselling the land to someone else for a modest profit?”
“Yes, of course.” Riko answered, also speaking quietly. Then he stiffened, and looked around. A moment later, he started to laugh. Then he whispered back to me. “I see. I’m guessing that you want to have us claim this land for you, since the militia’s going to do a whole lot of woodcutting for you?”
“That’d be nice, sir. I was hoping you might be able to send a post to my Granpa and make the land claim for Marza and I before anyone else gets any ideas. If you know anyone else who might be looking for a place, the east side of the road isn’t bad either.” I knew the Gonzalez farm would probably be shedding at least two more married couples over the next couple years. Marza might end up having some of her family close after all, and having four people on two farms was a lot more productive than having two on one farm. Infrastructure building was always very labor intensive, and would consume an absurd amount of available work time on a new farm with no infrastructure. There was no telling what the neighbors here might be like, other than the fact that they did a good job keeping the forest free of deadfalls. I couldn’t count on their help.
Riko slapped me on the back, hard enough that I almost stumbled, startling me out of my daydreaming. When I almost fell over, he said “Oh, sorry, Allen.” and gripped my shoulder, helping me regain my balance. “Good call on this though. I’ll get the letter to my wife and your granpa in the mail box tonight.”
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