“What do you mean they just let him go?” Daphne’s joy at seeing both of her children return home safe was quickly becoming tinged with irritation.
“When I arrived at the camp they told me he was free to go.”
“And you turned your back on them and walked away?” In the 45 years she’d lived in the shadow of Mingus Mountain Daphne had seen more than one seemingly-peaceful meeting turn violent. Strangers couldn’t afford to give one another the benefit of the doubt in a climate where every family struggled to keep themselves and their kin alive. If nothing else her sons should know that by now.
“Well, they didn’t have any weapons pointed at us.”
“Oh, Ephraim. I’m glad you’re ok, but what in the hell were you thinking?”
“That we ought to get out of there before they changed their minds.”
It didn’t make sense. Everything Daphne and her neighbours had observed about their invaders pointed to a culture that had no reason to fear them. Had MacArthur or Sean Reed captured one of the invader’s people Daphne had little reason to believe he or she would have ever been released. The prospect of gaining insider information about the habits and motives of the other side would have been more useful than almost any bribe or trade. So what made them change their minds?
“They almost seemed afraid of me, Mom,” Isaac said. Daphne frowned at her short, thin, quiet son who had only recently developed a slightly more muscular frame as a result of his carpentry apprenticeship. She grew even more confused as he explained how quickly the soldiers changed their minds. Nothing her children told her today made any sense.
“Well, they know where we live,” she said finally. “There’s nothing we can do to prevent them from finding us again, but we can finish the harvesting.” Either Death was on his way or he wasn’t, but running out of food in August would be a sure way to capture his attention. The days unfolded slowly with no sign of the soldiers. Once everything that could possibly have been preserved was safely stored away Daphne and her family settled in for a long, hot summer.
The children were fully recovered by then, and Daphne spent many afternoons telling them the stories her sons had loved a few short years earlier. Even Paige reluctantly joined in, although she still preferred to rearrange Daphne’s kitchen or scold Lemon for barking when she thought she could get away with it. Traditionally summer evenings been set aside for visiting neighbours and catching up on what was happening in the community, but this year Daphne had to rely on her sons to bring back snatches of news on the rare occasions when they met other people on the way to or back from Sparrow Creek. She could no longer take the trip herself. No one knew if the mysterious fever was still spreading, and few people wanted to take the risk of catching it when the desert released its summer miasma.
It was after one of these unexpected meetings that Isaac brought back troubling news. A midnight raid on the Eversons property had lead to the deaths of a son-in-law and two grandchildren. The invading army had finally taken MacArthur, but not before destroying his sheep paddock and setting his house on fire. Rachel and her remaining children and grandchildren were sleeping under the stars around a small campfire each night. She had taken to travelling to the next nearest creek for water in the hopes of avoiding further encounters with the invaders as the younger members of her family foraged for what little food they could find.
“Son, we might not even have enough for ourselves this summer,” Daphne said before Isaac could ask her to feed anyone else. Fishing and snaring sometimes rounded out their meals, but more often than not the Lewis and Davenport families ate watered down stews and thin slices of bread while they counted down the days to autumn.
“Every family is stretched to the limit,” Isaac said. “But the Eversons won’t make it through the summer without help. Rachel said her husband isn’t coming back.”
“She can’t possibly know that.” Daphne needed more than one hand to count the number of times MacArthur had been on trial for something. He always found a way to recover from even the most damming evidence, and she had no doubt he’d wiggle out of whatever these soldiers discovered he’d done as well.
“They’ve already sent him to Eutaw for his trial, mom. The commander said it wouldn’t be safe to keep him here, and that even if he was found not guilty on one charge he couldn’t outrun them all.” Once again Daphne wondered who or what MacArthur had found himself mixed up in. In all of the years she’d known him he’d always had a steady supply of food and new sheep for his herd. Their wool was a valuable trading commodity, but they were more fragile creatures than the sensible goats most families relied up on for cheese and milk.
“So what do you expect me to do?”
“Call a community meeting. If everyone gives a little the Eversons can muddle through just like the rest of us.”
“Son, I don’t have the authority to do that.” The Mingus court system survived because it so rarely treaded into the daily lives of the people who agreed to follow what the ombudsmen decided. Their jurisdiction was limited to theft, property rights, and the occasional custody or inheritance suit, and while the culture generally erred on the side of generosity it had been years since it had been this sorely tested. Would enough families be willing to reduce their already inadequate food supplies to keep such a controversial family going?
“What would you say if I told you I kind of already called one for you?”