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Enough fish were caught to feed everyone who met up at Salt River , but there were no leftovers to take home. Daphne was honestly surprised that they’d snapped up even that many fish, though. Maybe the mountain streams that fed into the river had had an unusually wet, mild winter last year. It had been so long since any news trickled down from them.
With Mariposa’s input a plan was slowly beginning to form.
“They might have better machines and more advanced medicine, ” she said as the group huddled around the campfire and ate their supper with a side of bean soup that one of Mariposa’s fellow ombudsmen had brought with him in case no one caught anything. “But they also need outside supplies to keep themselves going. We’ve grown or traded for everything we needed here for generations. We know which plants and animals are safe to eat, where to find water, and how to survive in the desert when both of those things are hard to find. If we work together we can figure out the rest of their weak spots, especially now that they seem to be more vulnerable than usual.”
Nearly everyone would eat meagre portions until the next harvest came in, but any day now life would get marginally better with the first autumn monsoon thunderstorm. The much-needed rain would bring life to the desert, and many of the plants that bloomed were edible in a pinch. It wouldn’t be easy, especially for children and the elderly, but surviving until the end of the summer was always a good sign.
“How do you feel about climbing back onto Flapjack?” Mariposa asked as she bundled her long, black hair into a messy bun. The burro lifted his ears in curiosity at the mention of his name. After a quick roll in the dirt he’d been content to trot up and down the banks of the river as the humans talked, and when they sat down to eat what they caught he stood patiently at the edge of the group. It made him feel better to be surrounded by friendly humans now that evening was approaching.
“I’m up for it if he is,” Daphne replied. She still would have preferred to walk alongside the rest of her companions, but riding was better than being left behind or being hobbled by an excruciatingly stiff, swollen knee in a few hours.
“I think you’d be less likely to be caught under surveillance if you spent the night in Peoria. The soldiers aren’t patrolling the river as much as they used to, but some of them still show up a few days a week. And I know my house is a shorter distance from the river than yours is, Daphne.”
Daphne had only met Mariposa once before and knew very little about the young woman. She wondered what else Sean had told his cousin about the council members of Mingus Valley. He wasn’t known as a gossip, but his tendency to agree with whomever he spoke with made Daphne a little nervous. She nodded and hoped she wouldn’t regret saying yes to this invitation.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Sean said. “If we’re going to work together we should show both communities that there’s nothing to fear from visiting one another.”
Gerald regretfully declined the invitation and collected his fishing poles. His family had been hard hit by the sickness earlier on in the summer, and he didn’t feel comfortable leaving a house full of half-grown children and young grandchildren alone overnight. It felt better for him to risk being caught than to take the chance something would go wrong at home. The rest of the Mingus group soldiered on to Mariposa’s house, Peoria residents slowly trickling back to their own homes as they moved more deeply into the community on the other side of Salt River.
What surprised Daphne the most about Mariposa’s dwelling – other than how small and tidy it was – was its age. Virtually no houses had survived from the time before they began keeping track of the years again. Most of them had been so poorly designed that they were dismantled for their materials, and others were so far away from reliable water supplies that they were unusable as well.
The homes that remained tended to be so old they didn’t resemble anything from the world that was. No one knew who once lived in them or how many times they’d been abandoned and reclaimed, only that these homes were still good places to live if their water supplies hadn’t dried out.
Curiously enough the roads survived, even the ones that buckled under the hot sun and stretched so far through the middle of nowhere that no one knew where they ended or why they were built. Daphne had always wondered where the road-makers intended them to go, and why they spent so much more energy on paving over the land than making homes that would last. None of the handful of books she studied as a girl had ever explained why that was so or what happened to the people who must have somehow disappeared long before the road-makers met their fate. A few legends had survived from that time, but oddly enough no one knew exactly what happened to make the world the way it was today.
“I have an extra bedroom upstairs, but I only have a few blankets to share with you,” Mariposa said as Daphne, Sean, Ephraim, and Isaac dumped their robes and water bottles in the corner of the main room.
Mariposa was one of those rare women who lived alone in these troubled times. Daphne winced when she first heard her new neighbour admit this. There were so many ways in which someone could get hurt or sick, and if you lived alone in such a remote area there was no guarantee that anyone would find you in time. Even though Daphne had spent most of her adult life relishing the freedom she found in it, somehow the act seemed dangerous when someone else bucked social norms.
“It’s really not dangerous at all,” the younger woman said as she pushed an orange tabby out of her chair and sat down. “Apple and Ambrosia are up half the night chasing mice, and anyone who steps into my yard will scare them into my bed. I wake up before any stranger reaches my front door. Even when I had that awful sickness a few months ago no one who came to check up on me was able to surprise my guard-cats.” The displaced cat glared at her before finding a new spot in front of the fireplace and resuming his grooming.
“But how would you protect yourself?” Daphne asked. True, Lemon was a gentle soul, but most folks interpreted his desire to jump up on them and give them a courtesy sniff as aggressive. She at least had the illusion of an aggressive pet to protect her as she lived alone.
“I keep a knife under my pillow,” Mariposa said with a wry grin. “And in the morning I strap it to my leg. I’ve only had to use it once so far. Most folks know better these days.”
As evening fell the little group huddled around the fire and drew their cloaks around them for warmth.
“Did your parents ever tell you the story of Johnny Appleseed?” Mariposa asked when the silence grew thicker than the starless sky pressing down on the tiny home. The others shook their heads. In all honesty Daphne had never heard of the term before.
“Well, apples used to be a kind of fruit that people grew…”