Graham's Resolution, Book 2, The Cascade Preppers
Graham's Resolution, Book 2, The Cascade Preppers
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"As winter descends upon us, I feel the harsh chill of the Cascade mountains seeping into my very bones. Our community has hunkered down, preparing ourselves for the long months ahead. Supplies are running low, but we're making do with what we have. We've been through worse and we'll get through this.
But there's something else weighing heavily on my mind. The Prepper community, our neighbors to the north, have remained distant and aloof. I can understand their desire for isolation, but in times like these, shouldn't we be banding together for the sake of survival?
My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of shouting outside..."
Sample: The Cascade Preppers
Sample: The Cascade Preppers
The Trail Between the Trees
The early winter sky was cast in a vibrant lavender that led to piercing blue above the horizon. It was as cold as hell is hot, if one can imagine the heat of hell as freezing. Graham pulled in the weighted line, hand over hand. He wrapped the twine from hand to elbow while staring down the murky blue ice hole of the frozen lake. The brown trout came squirming its way up the ice tunnel toward him to meet its fate.
Sam reached out and grabbed the greedy guy that currently hung midair. Removing the hook from its mouth, he dropped the frigid fish into a pail with its brothers. Sam and Graham were going for quantity over size when fishing in the shallow waters beneath the ice, but the chore of getting enough to feed everyone in their group had taken a little longer than usual this morning. In a matter of minutes the sky had gone from the deep blue, with a moon encircled in a fine mist to daylight so intense that eye protection was needed. Despite the warmth of the sunlight, extra layers of fur were still a necessity.
Once they’d caught enough for everyone’s breakfast, they silently gathered their gear to make their way back up the trail to camp. Like any two men who’d worked the same routine, they would perform their job without uttering a single word with regard to the task. “Get your nose out of there, Sheriff,” Graham gently warned the dog in a worn, low voice as he caught him peering into the bucket. “You’ll get your share.” He patted the dog’s head, tousling his fur, and picked up their morning haul. Sam came up behind him with the other lines after he’d covered the ice holes with spare plywood to keep them from freezing over too much.
“Ready?” Sam asked.
They crunched along the reliable crust as their boots echoed in the vast open until they met the trail between the trees. Mark had recently finished clearing the paths from that night’s continuous onslaught of snow.
As they walked up into the clearing, Bang, dressed in his snow gear from head to toe, tossed scraps to the chickens as they scampered all around him, eager for the meager delicacies. Sheriff ran up ahead to help out his young friend. Amused that the dog didn’t understand why they kept the birds caged, nor why he wasn’t allowed to visit with them inside the coop, Graham laughed. The hens often ran away and rudely, collectively, scurried to the other end of their enclosure when Sheriff came to greet them each morning.
Graham called out to Bang, “Make sure you give them fresh water.”
“I always do,” Bang replied, looking put out by the unnecessary reminder, but then his expression changed. “Mark told me to tell you Ennis isn’t up yet.”
“All right, thanks. I’ll give him a hand.” Graham and Sam walked in silence past the front of the cabin. Sam seemed to be pondering something, which wasn’t unusual for the man. One could spend the entire day with him and, other than a nod or an occasional word, he wouldn’t say much, but Graham always suspected Sam was either thinking ahead or mourning the separation from his daughter Addy. Whether he’d ever let another in on his thoughts was anyone’s guess, so it surprised Graham when Sam spoke up.
“You know, Ennis won’t see another winter. You might want to be prepared for that, Graham.”
Graham spoke softly. “Yeah, I’ve pretty much figured that out. We’re losing him a little each day. He rarely talks, but when he does, it’s always warnings. Like, he’s trying to give us as much as he can before he goes.” Graham stopped midstride and scuffed his boot into the ice, sending crystals a few feet forward. “I’m thankful we’ve had him for as long as we have.”
Sam clapped him on the back. He liked Ennis too. The old man had even shown Sam a thing or two about carving the little wooden figurines he made for Addy, the daughter he could see and hear but never again touch. If a man taught you something useful in life, he was a keeper in Sam’s book. Too bad they had to witness Ennis fade away so soon after coming to love and respect him so much.
“Hey, I’ll clean the trout and gear. You go ahead and help Tala with Ennis,” Sam said.
“Thanks, Sam.” Graham handed off the gear to him, then noticed Sheriff trotting behind Sam in high hopes of a fish head or two. The dog easily shifted his daytime alliances based on who had the better treats. This morning Sam was the man, but by nightfall he’d no doubt shift his loyalty back to Macy.
Graham walked back toward the cabin, took the stairs two at a time, and thudded onto the porch. The cabin door swung open. Tala greeted him with a fretful expression.
“There you are! I need your help; he’s not doing well,” she said. The worry lines on her forehead became clenched as she fought back tears. Graham reached for her. “Shhh, don’t worry,” he said, soothing her as best he could. Not often one for anxiety, Tala had proven herself to be level-headed, more so than most of the people Graham had ever encountered. Everyone silently predicted and dreaded the upcoming loss of Ennis. Yet, Tala’s evident anxiety worried Graham and made him fear the end was near.
“Mark and I tried to help him up, but he said he’d wait for you. Sometimes I think he doesn’t recognize us.”
“I’ll go check on him. Has he eaten or drunk anything yet?”
“I brought him some water earlier. I don’t think he’s had any yet.” Then, lowering her voice even more, she whispered, “Graham, what are we going to do? He’s getting worse every day, and he’s avoiding water and other drinks. I think he’s got an infection, and he doesn’t want us to catch on to how much pain he’s in.”
“We’ve been lucky to have him this long,” Graham said and pulled her toward him. She looked pale. He caressed the side of her face with the back of his hand. Looking into her eyes, he saw a flash of fear and wondered what scared her. Before he could ask, his attention was diverted by footsteps behind him. Macy stepped out of the bathroom, getting a clear view of their embrace.
“Can’t you guys do that somewhere else?” she said, stomping with frustration out the door.
Graham and Tala both laughed. “Poor girl,” Tala said, returning to the subject of the ailing old man. “I think Ennis needs antibiotics and phenazopyridine hydrochloride.”
“Phenazo-what?” Graham asked.
“Phenazopyridine. Numbs the urinary tract. Don’t ask me how I know. The antibiotics we have, but none of the other. I hate to think of him in constant pain.”
Graham nodded. Hugging her close, he kissed her on the forehead, then released her. “Let’s keep him as comfortable as we can until we know for sure.”
Tala closed her eyes and nodded, unleashing quiet streams down her cheeks.
Graham took off his coat and he left her there. His shadow preceded him toward the bunkroom, gliding across the golden gleams of the formidably cold morning light as it spilled onto the worn, weathered flooring.
He strolled into the bunkroom to find Ennis asleep on his side; still and quiet, snoring with a whistling Graham had become accustomed to over the last few months. He straightened the covers a little and felt the old man’s forehead for any trace of fever. Finding none, he left him alone to rest and closed the bunkroom door behind him to keep out the noise of the living, going about their morning routines.
“He’s sound asleep right now,” he whispered to Tala, not wanting to break the peace within the cabin. Best to keep things quiet for a little while longer before the others returned. “After breakfast, I’ll try again. When’s your next call into Clarisse? Maybe she can give us some pointers.”
“We’re scheduled to talk tomorrow afternoon.” Tala still looked tense and, as Graham peered into her brown eyes, he saw something more concerning in there, in fact, on further inspection, she looked quite pale for someone with her American Indian heritage and skin tone. “Are you sick?”
“I’m fine. Just a little worried.”
Tala quickly went off into the kitchen to get things prepared for breakfast. Graham wanted to press her for a better answer, but the door opened. Sam entered, with the kids and Sheriff in tow. Graham and Tala hardly ever had a moment of privacy, living in such close quarters with four kids, two additional adults, and Sheriff.
Sam handed the cleaned fish off to Tala for her to make quick work of pan-frying them; they were all starving from the morning tasks. While everyone else cleaned up and set the table, Graham reloaded the woodstove to fend off the persistent cold that seeped through the cracks in the old cabin.
Soon the sounds and aroma of fried fish fillets held promise for hunger, and a familiar line formed by the bathroom door to clean up before breakfast. Just as quickly, they finished their meal of cornmeal pan-fried trout, creamy grits, and biscuits without much conversation beyond the uttered gratitude. To keep their rations plentiful they didn’t eat a formal lunch, so they’d learned to eat well at breakfast and dinner. If they were starving in between from the hard labor their days demanded, they partook of the extra baked goods Tala kept available.
Graham finished eating and looked up, expecting to meet eyes with Tala, as usual, but she purposely looked down as if in deep thought. He knew she was worried about Ennis, but he missed her usual cheerfulness. She seemed unnaturally quiet this morning. “Good breakfast, Tala,” He said. “Thanks.”
She glanced up at him and flashed a small smile, then went back to contemplating her meal, barely eating anything at all. He was about to ask her more when Sam piped up. Since Sam didn’t waste words, Graham gave the man his full attention, while Tala and the rest of the gang began to clear the table.
“Hey, Graham, before you go…” Sam leaned one elbow on the table. “I want to propose another hunt. Mark and Marcy want to go out this time.” He gestured toward the two teens, who scuttled out the door to stand their watch.
The noticeable pause after his statement told Sam that Graham had some reservations. “I don’t know,” Graham finally said. “I haven’t seen a winter as cold as this in several years.”
Sam knew that was true. The outside temperatures had ranged in the low single digits these last few weeks. It was February now, and they all yearned for warmer weather. As if the earth itself mourned the massive loss of human life, Mother Nature expressed her grief with a desolate landscape, draped in white. Still, Sam tried to convince Graham it was necessary to go out in the deep of winter yet again. “We need more meat to preserve for later, and the two kids should come along. They need to learn how to safely go on their own hunt next year.”
Graham looked thoughtful, and Sam waited. He and Graham needed to teach them things for their own survival. In this life they now lived, one never knew if they’d see the next sharp cold days of winter, let alone the hopeful blooms of the coming spring.
Experience told Sam this hunt would be the last of the season before things got too muddy and dangerous to travel far enough to make the expedition worth it. He hoped Graham would see it his way.
“Can you wait another week?” Tala asked, breaking up the uncomfortable silence. “Maybe the temperature won’t be so cold by then.”
“If we wait any longer, things will start to thaw and the environment will be worse. Camping in wet snow is no fun, and it’s much more dangerous hiking through the mountain passes, risking slides. This is the last safe time to go till later in the season. I wouldn’t offer to take them out if conditions were too dangerous.”
“Of course not, Sam. I think taking them out when things are at their worst is probably a beneficial learning opportunity for them. Marcy, for one, hasn’t asked to go on a hunt until now, and this will be a good chance to improve her survival skills.”
“Well, she might have ulterior motives.” Tala voiced her suspicions with significant, feminine perception.
“There won’t be any of that.” Graham pulled a tired hand down his whiskered face. “If you go, just make sure the lovebirds stay busy.” He sighed. “I don’t know how much longer we can keep Marcy and Mark apart though. All of a sudden, I’ve been strapped with two teenage daughters, and they’re driving me insane.”
Tala darted a quick glance at him and then flicked it toward Sam as she leaned against the kitchen counter.
Graham caught on at once. “I’m sorry, Sam. Feel free to give me a swift kick.”
Sam raised his hands up as if to physically keep the apology at bay. Yes, his pain at being separated from his own daughter was still raw, but sympathy didn’t help ease it.
“Graham, I’ve accepted the way things are, for now. She’s fine, and I still get to visit and talk to her. I can’t be with her but, she’s healthy and well cared for. Being apart from her kills me, but Clarisse said she’d keep researching a cure for the virus. I can only hope that one day she’ll come up with something that will cure all of us. In the meantime, I’m stuck with you guys. No offense.” Despite the way Sam had worded it, Graham knew he still felt a certain resentment toward the carriers. The consequence of his sacrifice even strained relationships between them and the preppers at times.
Tala smiled. “No offense taken at all; we’re happy you’re here with us. We only wish the circumstances were different.” Graham’s nod of agreement looked as genuine to Sam as his contrition at having spoken carelessly.
Sam huffed out a breath that could have covered a sob. Even he wasn’t sure which directions his emotions might go. “Me too. Even after months of this, the pain is still as strong as the day I left her behind with the preppers. I feel like a divorced parent, and Dalton’s got custody of her. I love the guy, but hate him too. Does that make sense?”
“It makes a lot of sense,” Tala assured him.
Though Graham and Tala had always encouraged him to talk about the situation, Sam seldom did. When he’d first arrived to live with them, he was too grief-stricken to utter a single word out loud for fear he would release more than he could handle. Instead of gut-wrenching weeping, he kept to himself. He would leave early in the morning to hike through the woods. No one asked him what he was doing with his time. He’d overheard some of the kids ask questions, and when Graham told them to give him some time to deal with his torment, he knew the other man understood. The pain Sam endured was a living hell. Once—only once—Graham had commended him for not taking his anguish out on him and his little group of carriers. Sam knew he certainly felt guilt over the situation and wished there was something they could do to alleviate the circumstances.
The weight of Sam’s grief sometimes came close to overwhelming him, but out there among the stoic trees, desolate mountains, and endless snow, he’d finally come to accept what he couldn’t change.
Now that he carried the China virus, he had had no choice but to join Graham’s camp. At least he still spoke with his daughter Addy over the radio, and every few days Dalton would bring her to the Skagit River rendezvous spot where, at a safe distance, Sam could lay his eyes on her. Somehow things had normalized, or at least worked in the only way possible given their situation.
It took time, but Sam adapted. Every day at dinnertime a place had been set for him at the table whether he was around the cabin or not. He always returned to settle in with them for the night, and then, slowly he began sticking around more and taking part in their daily lives. Now he felt like part of the family.
“I hear Addy has been spending a lot of time with Clarisse lately.” Tala said. “We talk on the radio at least once a week. She enjoys having Addy in the lab, where she’s taught her how to identify different elements through the microscope. She’s even found a lab coat to fit her.”
A prideful smile crept over Sam’s face. “Dalton told me Addy would rather spend her time with Clarisse in the lab than at the day school. Said you gave her some tips on teaching Addy advanced math?” Sam asked.
“I did. I think this is the best arrangement for her. She’s very shy, from what I hear. If she were to stay in the school with the other kids, she wouldn’t progress as much as if Clarisse taught her. Clarisse is kind of a loner anyway. This arrangement is suitable for both of them.”
“Dalton said Clarisse still blames herself somehow,” Graham said. “She rarely leaves the quarantine building and sends the guard back to camp so she can sleep in her lab.”
“What happened wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. What happened happened. I’m a carrier now. At least I didn’t die,” Sam said in practiced resignation, then tried to change the subject. “So we’re good with the three-day hunt? I can take the two lovebirds tomorrow?”
“Yeah, at least Macy can catch a break from their antics for a few days. She’s getting pretty fed up, and she’s armed. It worries me, man,” Graham said, joking.
“All right, I’ll get them geared up,” Sam said and rose from the table.
“And I’ll pack up the food supply,” Tala said.
Each morning in this desolate life after death they rose and began the day’s never-ending tasks together, each going their own way as cogs in a wheel; without one the others soon tired, and this jeopardized the whole bunch.