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“How would our strategy change if we knew more about them?” Daphne asked. “We already know they have better weapons than we do and that not everything they say is true.” The vaccination program was invaluable, but Daphne could think of little else they’d done to improve the lives of the people in Mingus valley. She fell quiet as the debate continued.
“We could figure out how they’re receiving orders and what kind of schedules they keep,” Daniel said.
“They’re not very organized,” Gerald said. “Most of their recruits are new and poorly trained.”
“That’s all the more reason to act now!”
“Under whose orders? With what supplies? We don’t have the authority to make these decisions, and if the strangers are keeping as close tabs on us as you think they’ll know what we’re doing before we do.”
“My larder is almost empty and I don’t know why,” Daphne said finally as the debate grew more divided. “How much food do you have left?” One by one the men confirmed that their food supplies were low as well. None of them had noticed declines as steep as the one in Daphne’s house, but she decided to try solving that particular mystery later.
“We need to go fishing. I heard Salt River is the best place to fish.” It wasn’t really, but any sort of catch would help tide over their dwindling food supplies until the autumn rainy season brought an end to the hungry time of year. Sparrow Creek was closer to home and therefore more useful for filling water jugs, but the largest river within walking distance of the community was much more likely to sustain a healthy population of fish.
Sean cocked his head and stared at Daphne with a puzzled expression on his face. Daniel opened his mouth as if he were about to vehemently disagree with her, then closed it again and furrowed his brow.
“We’ll need a lot of strong, young people to organize the effort,” Gerald said, corners of his wrinkled mouth twitching as he slowly realized which settlement was located on the other side of the river.”Fish spoils quickly, so if we catch enough to share we’ll need a way to distribute it to everyone as quickly as possible.”
“Of course we should see if Peoria wants to join us. Technically half of the river belongs to them, and we might need to cross into their territory if one of our nets or poles gets swept downstream. Is two days enough time to organize this?” Daphne was nothing if not neighbourly.
“Yes. I have a cousin who lives there,” Sean said. “I’ll walk over tomorrow morning and alert her. Daniel, can you round up volunteers in the west on your way home?”
Daniel nodded, still not sure what was happening. Somehow everyone had come to agree with him without actually doing what he expected of them. How had he won the debate so quickly?
The other members of the council left as soon as their plans were solidified.
Now to solve the mystery of her missing ingredients. The children weren’t old enough to cook dried food much less hide the evidence. Lemon might have eaten cheese if there was any left and if he was alone in the house long enough to devour it, but it had been weeks since that particular delicacy was eaten up. Paige barely showed interest in eating these days. Cooking food and hiding it from everyone else didn’t seem likely for a woman whose joints had only grown more stiff and appetite less regular over the summer.
Assuming she could rule out thieves from other households that left Isaac and Ephraim. Ephraim’s time away from home was mostly accounted for. When he wasn’t gathering water or repairing tools he sat in the front yard copying the small, leather book he’d borrowed from the doctor who apprenticed him last year. Some treatments were so rare that it was likely he wouldn’t need to use them until long after his formal education had ended, but writing down what other doctors had learned was a good way to begin memorizing less common cures.
Isaac was a different story. After his meagre chores were finished he disappeared almost every day. Sometimes he took his brother with him, but more often he travelled alone. At first Daphne had believed her younger son when he said he needed to find the right materials with which to build a chair or practice repairing the roof, but over the long, hot summer few examples of his work has surfaced in Daphne’s house. She knew her son craved peace and quiet even more than she did, but it was difficult to explain why that desire prompted him to head out alone on even the hottest afternoons.
Asking Ephraim where his brother really went off to produced a quiet grunt but little more. Daphne could only hope that her younger son would be more communicative when he returned. The boys had left together today. She found it odd that they would come home separately several hours apart as they normally came back at about the same time. Daphne banked the fire, slowly lowered herself into a chair, and stroked Lemon’s marginally cleaner fur as she waited for answers.
The rest of the household had turned in to bed by the time Isaac arrived home that evening as dusty and dishevelled as had become his new normal. Isaac’s formerly pale complexion had developed a deep tan over the summer, testament to the hours he spent outdoors over the long holiday.
“Welcome home,” she said as he quietly crept into the house. “Where have you been?”
“Looking for supplies.” He began taking off his coat. It might be hot during the day, but the desert could become surprisingly cool after dark even in August.
“You never seem to find any.”
“It’s hard to find the right materials. You can only walk so far in this heat.”
A pause in the conversation. Daphne lit another lamp and slowly stood up, bracing her arm against the table to spare her bad knee.
“Isaac, our supplies are running low. Do you know what happened to them?”
“Mom, I – ”
As Isaac peeled his coat off his left arm a handful of beans tumbled out of the pocket and onto the recently swept hearth.
“Who have you been sharing our food with?”