I’d like to claim some Machiavellian super power for what came next but the most honest answer – whether at the time or viewed through historical perspective – is that human nature is very predictable on the macroscopic view.
Life on the home place continued to run pretty much as it had been running. June was boysenberries, broccoli, cherries, peaches, potatoes, rhubarb, and all the greens and herbs that we could harvest. I missed most of that work but it turned out not to be a disaster though more was dried than was canned. Some of that was the result of a lack of white sugar or honey as a sweetener but some of that was in the process of being rectified by the surprising turn of Reggie actually pulling things together enough to capture a couple of wild bee colonies and installing them in Dad’s empty hives. Who would have thought it? Certainly not I and I had to add a nerve facet to the puzzle that was Reg.
While the home place may have run the same town life was evolving. After the destruction of the dam Matt instituted Plan B. The fruit of this plan was basically a cheap grade of ethanol made from the grains of the vermin infested and abandoned silos on the other side of the county. Jax and I spent many a moment bemoaning the fact that we hadn’t secured at least some of that grain ourselves before the rats had gotten into it. It would have gone a long way towards easing some of the problems we faced as our own grain supply dwindled before we could plant and harvest more.
“I’ve seen that stuff … smelled it,” Reggie said with a grin during one of our family meetings. “It’s basically just moonshine … rot gut moonshine at that. Even without us spiking it that stuff is going to foul up machinery with too much use.”
Jax nodded. “Most engines aren’t meant to run pure ethanol to begin with. I wonder if they are thinning regular fuel with ethanol.”
I shrugged. “Either or, it doesn’t matter. What matters is results.”
And what results they were. We didn’t even have to sabotage very many batches to get the desired effect. Of course that’s when we found out that Matt had some serious shade tree mechanics at his disposal. But that too backfired on Matt because his trademark slyness actually made the farmers suspicious.
First he’d send the mechanics out to repair machinery but not without a “guard” because of how valuable they were. Only “guard” turns out to be a serious number of “guards” that wind up never leaving because they’ve been ordered to not just protect the mechanic but to protect the farm. This disenfranchises the farmer and makes him a subsidiary – or slave depending on how you look at it – to the farm which is considered more important. This happened twice before the small landowners wised up. Eventually they didn’t just stop asking for help from town for mechanical issues but stopped trading in the fouled fuel completely … or at least those that were strong enough were allowed to stop.
The second part of Matt’s Plan B was actually quite ingenious and Reggie and I were a little jealous. Of the others, only Jax understood but he said it simply wasn’t practical for an operation our size. I didn’t disagree but that didn’t mean that I was any less impressed. And yes, I can recognize and be impressed with Matt’s intelligence while still despising most of his methods and ultimate goals.
Basically what Matt was doing was taking recycled materials and making briquettes that could be burned in open fires and in set ups that would operate steam engines. Had he used cleaner materials there is no telling where he could have taken his manufacturing where it would have ultimate led him. Matt’s problem was that he despised the success of the industry he created so did not put his intellect to use enough to make the briquette endeavor even more successful.
Other people saw where the briquette work could go however and they wanted a piece of it. His underlings were the ones that really forced the people in town to work on scavenging materials that could be converted. They started by dismantling damaged structures around town and taking the materials to old town dump where it was separated for recycling. Wood was the primary material they used to make the briquettes with but reports also came back that they were selling scrap metal to some out of town operation.
The success of the briquette industry had us feeling like our plans were slipping away but we stuck with patience and didn’t attempt any overt action against the town. Eventually our subversive attacks began to pay off.
July was when I began to get my strength back and just in time too as this was the first month of plenty that we’d had since the last of the fall harvest. The ground was finally dry from all of the flooding and the corn started coming in, at least the sweet corn had. The field corn would still be another month off at least. The orchards had also started to produce with the first fruit being apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums, and more cherries that we could almost handle. The grape arbor was full to bursting though we did wind up losing a couple of vines to weaknesses caused by too much rain earlier in the season. The berry hedges produced hand over fist and it was here that we usually put Gennie to work because with the abundance she could eat as many as she picked without harming our food stores; blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, and raspberries fields the brambles to overflowing. The garden came back after a very late start and we harvested beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, celery, carrots, peas, peppers, early potatoes, summer squash and enough cucumbers and tomatoes to make even the Houchins farm sit up and take notice.
In contrast, July is when the stress and poor nutrition really began to show in those living in town and in those that had become dependent on what the town claim to be able to offer. Of course, we at least partially helped that along. We live trapped as many rats as we could and re-homed them into warehouses and buildings that we knew were being used as storage for the supplies that Matt rationed out. The rats themselves did plenty of damage to the supplies, and even the buildings, but there was also an unplanned consequence of this tactic.
On day in early August Vern hot footed it over to our place and said, “From here on out don’t none of you mess with any rats.”
Jax noted his palor and asked, “What’s up that you didn’t feel you could put it on the radiofax?”
“Because I wanted to make sure that you understood that Dad wasn’t just back tracking on his stance.”
“You mean about the small farms?”
“Yeah. Now look Jax, you make sure everyone understand.”
“I will when you finally spit it out.” Jax is a forgiving sort but he still held a quiet grudge over how I’d been treated and there simply was no back up in him when it came to some issues.
“We got word through a third party that they’ve got some kind of plague in town.”
Vern described the symptoms and Jax said, “That sounds like an intestinal disease, not the plague.”
“Ok, if it isn’t the plague Mr. I’ve-Never-Been-To-Medical-School, what is it then?”
I’d heard the noise and quietly entered the room trying not to draw too much attention. On the other side of the room Reggie gave me a quick look before stepping up to Jax and saying, “Rats carry lots of crap that humans can catch but it is mostly bacterial.”
Jax and Vern both turned to him. “Relax. Geez. Before I got involved I wanted to know the possible outcomes and whether it was worth spending the time doing it.”
The two men relaxed and said, “Ok then, you tell us what this is.”
“I can’t tell you what it is, but I can’t tell you what it might be. Salmonellosis. Puking and the runs, cramps, fever … like Jax said that ain’t the plague but if enough people are coming down with it. Heck, it might not even be the rats transferring it but could be a bad batch of food.”
I held up the wall and said, “It could be an accidental poisoning … or even a deliberate one. Why did you automatically assume it was the rats?”
Vern’s panic began to subside. “Don’t mind me. I just saw too much of this crap when I was active duty. I’ve had it you know.”
“Plague. Got bit by a rat over in a Somali village. They caught it in time obviously but it scared the … the crap out of our whole unit. Several of us were quarantined for over a month. Hate that ****.”
“So maybe it isn’t the rats.”
“No, it’s the rats. A mechanic came to one of the farms and was cussing about being bitten by a rat earlier in the day. Twenty-four hours later the guy is on his death bed and dies later that night.”
Jax asked, “No one else caught it?”
Jax grabbed a couple of the books out of the library that he’d been studying and gave them a quick scan. “Could be Salmonellosis like Reggie said although that doesn’t normally cause death except in infants and frail elderly or those with some other health problem. Could be Rat-Bite Fever which is more serious though that has a rash and you didn’t mention one.”
“Nope, no rash. I asked specifically.”
“Then I’ll stick with the forensics we do have and say that if it isn’t Salmonellosis that it is something very close.”
“So, not plague?”
“I don’t think so. Not a hanta, lassa or hemorrhagic fever either as the symptoms aren’t similar enough. Either way, from here on out we deal with rodents wearing heavy gloves and some kind of mask and goggles. We also need to secure the feed and food storage.”
Vern nodded. “Mom is already hanging hot peppers every place you can imagine, this is only going to make her even crazier about it.”
Reggie laughed, “What? She thinks all the mice and rats are related to Speedy Gonzalez?”
I threw a dish towel at Reggie and said, “Hot peppers can kill mice and mess up rats. Or did you think I put cayenne pepper flakes in the chicken feed just to BBQ them on the hoof so to speak?”
Reggie shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”
“Well believe this Einstein, there is a pepper over in India that is so strong that it is used to keep elephants away.”
Reggie continued to think I was pranking him until he found it doing some research the next day on natural rodent repellents. We all had a good laugh, even Reggie, who had begun to relax enough that he and Ginger were really starting to explore whatever it was between them.
Just to be on the safe side though Jax asked that we restrict all of our recons to far-viewing. And just to be safe he also had a decontamination routine he put anyone that went off the property through once they returned. Even though it caused some grumbling on occasion everyone suffered through because of Ashley’s baby, Kellie, and while I hated to admit it, me. It wasn’t just the infants and little kids that could get killed by that kind of illness. I was on the mend and even looked and acted normal most of the time but it would not have taken much to set me back to square one as I was still slightly anemic and kept catching every little cold that went through the house. It was frustrating.
But a couple of weeks later, for one of our weekly meetings, Ashton brought back pictures of huge “burial pits” that they were just dumping bodies into before throwing eco-fuel in and lighting ablaze all grumbling stopped. Whatever was going through town was definitely in the moderately deadly range.
“Could it be another terrorist attack?” Ashley asked as she held her son protectively.
Ashton who’d already asked the question out of her hearing told her, “Don’t think so Hon. Just some of Matt’s tactics are coming back to haunt him.”
Ashton looked at Jax to explain it the way he had earlier. “Matt, just like Delory and Suicide before him, is keeping all but his top people on short rations. It still looks like they are trying to eat the way they always have … canned and boxed foods, liquor and drugs, cigarettes even if they are home-rolled. We’ve all seen that they are getting some stuff from the militia but what is coming in looks like more of the same just with generic labels rather than name brand stuff. About the only thing that I’ve seen come in that isn’t like that is those big bags of white rice and rice is nothing but carbs with very little nutrition.”
Alexis added, “We’ve all heard the radio. Lots of problems occurring that could be prevented with better nutrition. Most everyone isn’t getting the good stuff we’ve been getting.”
Gennie snorted. “The good stuff? This crap is all just poor food. Beans and vegetables. I’d kill for a pizza … a slice of bread … or even them nasty corn bread things.”
Janice gave Gennie the look and she shut up. She still pouted but at least she shut up. All of us were missing bread. August had been a duplication of July only with the addition of several varieties of pears, but the field crops were still barely producing and that meant that bread wasn’t exactly super available on the menu.
Jax got the meeting back on track by asking, “Lon and Vern brought some news and we compared it to some things that we’ve been hearing and it looks like Matt might be on the move.”