Chapter 17

Jerome stared at the photograph of the handsome black woman for a moment before continuing to read the bio on Joan Manning. A few people, critical in the successful implementation of the 'snitch' had turned up missing during the months of government turmoil. Karl had been responsible for finding them and had done a very thorough job, except for the three now under discussion. Again, Katrina raved on about the captain, who had been more concerned about his wife's discovery of his sexual promiscuity than the success of the project. Personally, he thought Katrina's graphic description of how Captain Gordon had paid for not securing the safety of the Manning woman was extremely unladylike. Of course, he would, at least for now, keep Joan's whereabouts to himself. He made a mental note to cultivate the friendship of this woman, knowing that she would become extremely valuable to him when the 'snitch', complete with its elimination code, was finally inserted into the bodies of the Illuminati; as he suspected Katrina would demand. That evening at the dinner table, there were many questions, but few answers. Although the food was simple, it was consumed in the tradition of a victory celebration. At least, the victory of returning safely from the hellish city that Slick Rock had become. Dr. Sherman explained all they had seen and done, with the exception of the late supper they shared with the Widow Bander. He also stressed the urgency of making a decision on whether to stay or attempt the long trip to Mount Wilson. Although everyone had opinions, both pro and con, no one was able to say for sure that they wanted to risk the trip. The confusion on everyone's face told Dr. Sherman that no one was prepared to assume the responsibility of leadership. Solemnly, he prodded, "This is not something we can deliberate for very long. We either make plans to leave, or start a garden here."

" Well, we have a few seeds," Ben said," but, for this large group, I was planning on your being able to bring more. If we do plant, the crop will be pretty thin. However, Colleen was really thinking ahead, she stored only non-hybrid seeds. That means that we'll be able to harvest productive seeds along with the produce." Looking at Billy Jo, Don asked, "How was the hunting when you came through Colorado?"

" We was pretty lucky. But, this was a real hard winter, I don't know how the animals fared." Billy Jo continued, "Seein' as human's have been too busy dyin' themselves to go huntin' maybe it'll be alright. Back home when times was hard, we could always find a stray dog or two."

Theresa jumped at Billy Jo's last comment, and cried, "Oh, no! You didn't really hunt dogs, did you?"

" No," Billy was quick to respond," We didn't hunt them, but . . . " Megan tried to quell Theresa's rising horror by saying, "Only the mean dogs, honey. You know, like the one that was in the yard a few days ago."

Everyone had become so engrossed in the conversation that they forgot Theresa was still in the room. Megan continued, "It's a good thing Billy Jo saw him and scared him away by shooting at him. Now, I think it's way past your bedtime. Come on and I'll finish telling you the story I began last night." Theresa was not satisfied with Megan's answer, but she did as she was asked. Don, upset by what he had just heard, said," Megan, what dog are you talking about?"

" It happened late in the afternoon, Theresa and Ben were digging in the garden and a wild dog showed up at the fence. Billy Jo and I were on the porch when we heard Theresa scream for help. The dog was still outside the fence when Billy Jo and I came around the corner, but he was growling and working his way down to the gate. Billy Jo shot through the fence and the dog ran off. We haven't seen the dog since then." Megan finished the story and went upstairs with Theresa. "

Well, that ain't exactly all," Billy Jo began after Megan and Theresa went up the stairs. "That dog wasn't just mean, he was hungry. His ribs was stickin' out like he hadn't eaten for a good long while. Pretty soon, he'll be joining a pack. I didn't say nothin' before, 'cause I didn't want to worry the women."

Joan, looked up at the ceiling and rolled her eyes in exaggeration at that last part, then said, "We saw a few packs of dogs while traveling. I guess, with no owners to care for them, many will become feral." When Megan returned to the kitchen, discussion on whether to head for the mountains or stay in Monticello resumed. Dr. Sherman was listing the problems they faced. " The most pervasive danger is the bacteria, but there's no doubt that predators, such as that dog are going to be a constant threat. There are also likely to be roving bands of people looking for food. They may, in the long run, be the greatest threat of all. As both carriers of bacteria and competitors for food. If we stay here and manage to grow a garden, it would be difficult to protect. This house is just off the main road, a little too close for comfort. Although Joan had gone to Slick Rock for only one reason, she had returned more inclined to share her real thoughts rather than speak words intended to manipulate. "The answerer is quite clear. If we decide to remain together, and it seems we have," Joan paused while everyone nodded their agreement, "then we need to set some priorities for survival. My guess is that any threat of major disease is still months away. Isn't that right, Doc?"

" Yes. It will take a few months for incubation. The rate of spread would be dependent on such factors as wind carrying flies. Flies in the mountains may not be as great a danger, since flies from the city only travel about twelve to fifteen miles. Birds may pose a greater threat than flies. Also, there is a high probability of rodents making an exodus from the cities and predators and people wandering about the countryside. It will take a few months for any disease to spread. That is, assuming any carriers of a disease aren't aided by mechanical transportation and that seems highly unlikely."

" It would also appear," Joan said," that our immediate answer to simple infection is caution, cleanliness, and the chlorine bleach we brought back from the city. There's not really much else that can be done. Therefore, our priorities are food and protection from predators. Our food storage won't last much longer. Planting a garden here would give us the highest yield because, since the house was built on a low spot, this piece of ground is protected from the wind and cold."

" That's right," Don interjected," Angie bought this place because it was low and shielded from the wind. Colleen had one of the best gardens around here."

" Precisely," Joan said, pointedly," That is the very reason that might make it impossible to protect. Planting a garden here won't do us much good if we have to spend all our time protecting it from thieves. Since, large game is more plentiful in high elevations, it means that our survival may depend on our ability to track. When I put together all the information available, it is very clear that we should go to Mount Wilson as soon as possible. Does, anyone disagree?" No one disagreed. Everyone recognized that her logic was sound. " Who remembers Jerome's instructions on how to get there?" Juniper asked. Ben responded, quickly, "Me. There's no way I'm likely to forget how to find my best friend's grave."

Sadly, Ben remained unconvinced that Molly was alive. For a few moments they all pondered the enormity of the task they had chosen. Tomorrow, as Dr. Sherman suggested, they would begin listing the items they required for survival. Preparations for leaving were simpler than they had imagined. Between them, Don, Billy Jo, and Sal built a sturdy cart. Along with the wagons they had brought from Slick Rock, they had plenty of room as long as they stuck to the bare essentials. Their major problem was getting Theresa to understand why they had to leave. Even Dr. Sherman's logical explanation failed to get through her stubbornness. It was Billy Jo who finally managed to bring her around.

" Now darlin'," He said softly, as he knelt in front of the child, "I know you don't want to leave your home, but your momma ain't got nothin' but bad memories of this place now. It just might be, that if we find a nice new place to live, then maybe she'll perk up some, maybe wanna start livin' again. You think you could help find a special place that your momma'd like?" The thought of her mother coming out of her withdrawal gave Theresa all the reason she needed for leaving the only home she had ever known. Knowing the time Billy Jo had spent with her mother, walking, and exercising her limbs, she trusted his instincts, completely. Theresa did an immediate about face and became anxious to get started and find that new home for her and her mother. The day they chose to leave was bright and sunny. Leaving the house was more difficult for Don than he had imagined. Before leaving, he and Theresa visited the graves. The air was warm and the clean smell of the spring breeze reminded Don of similar days when he and Angie had made up excuses to go fishing instead of work. From the corner of his eye, he spotted a pair of mourning doves flying east. 'It's better this way,' he thought as he looked down at Theresa, 'The sad reminders left here will be left behind as we begin a new life, a new start for us all.' To Don's surprise, as they turned to leave, Joan was standing behind them. She tossed a wildflower on her husband's grave then quickly left to join the others.

" What are you so happy about?" Sal asked, puzzled by Don's burst of enthusiasm in adjusting his half of the harness they had built around his shoulders. "You act like you're ready to haul this wagon 150 miles in one day all by yourself."

"Why, this isn't just a wagon," Don replied almost joyfully, "It's a symbol of a new life for all of us. Let's face it, the world's been a pretty crummy place, up until now. But finally, we have the chance to re-do the parts we screwed up, or if not us, at least our grandchildren."

Sal and the other's mood was lightened considerably by Don's words as they followed the large cart, turning their smaller wagons east. Megan began to sing, Juniper joined her, and Dr. Sherman added his deep baritone. Colleen was just barely able to feel the warmth of the sun on her face as she rode in the wagon. She agreed with Billy Jo's assessment of her state of mind and tried not to feel any excitement in order to stay by her daughter's side a bit longer than usual. The next morning it was apparent from the pain in their muscles that they had traveled too far. They slowed their pace and relaxed around a cheerful campfire early that afternoon. Their hunger satisfied, they stared into the flames with the comfortable silence of a close family.

"What do you think happened to Molly?" Juniper broke into the quiet. "I mean exactly, where did she go? Do you believe that stuff Rowan said about a silver cord connecting our souls to our bodies?"

" I haven't thought about that yet," Megan responded, "I'm still hung up on the image of Cassandra and those two men disappearing as if they were sucked straight into the depths of hell."

Joan had heard only part of that story and had, at first, passed it off as some kind of superstitious group hallucination. However, since joining up with these people, phrases heard as a child popped into her head with increasing regularity . . . phrases from a voodoun religion that she had never accepted. Ignoring Megan's, comment, Joan asked, "What does the Illuminati want with Molly? I know they think she knows where her husband is, but why are they after him?"

Don tried his best to fill Joan in on what he knew of the Rockwood's and Juniper quickly took over the story beginning with her chasing Don to Nevada. Sal remained quiet through the entire conversation, thoughtfully holding the crystal that lay over his heart. " The old man is trying to reach a gate of some sort. If he does, I think we all get a chance to go through it. Jerome's friends don't want that to happen."

Startled by Sal's sudden insight into the matter, Juniper said, "What? That's the most I've ever heard you say without swearing. What are you talking about?" Sal stood and released the crystal he held as if it were hot. "I don't have a god damned clue."

" That's much better, at least I understood what you said that time. Seriously, what were you saying, something about a gate?" Juniper prodded.

" I don't know. I don't even know how I know what I know. But, right now, I feel like I'm going to explode. Something tells me that Tyler knows what's going on. I didn't believe him when he told me that I knew where Gaf was, but now I think I do. But, it's weird and it doesn't make any sense."

Joan was perplexed by the strange comments from someone whom she knew instinctively, to be violent and without any trace of metaphysical interest. She knew it would be pointless to pursue, at least, not at this time. However, she had a feeling that Sal was somehow connected to the secretive affairs of the Illuminati. She could not avoid the images of the little demons that were dancing around the campfire. Her grandmother's blood flowed through her veins. She rubbed her eyes in an effort to stifle the vision. Moving her hand away from her face, she saw a flaming sword rise from the campfire and slice through the demons. The fire seemed to react by shooting sparks high and wide. So startled was Joan that she jumped up and yelled. The others simply stared and wondered at such a dramatic response to a few flying embers. Realizing that she alone saw the specters, she sat back down and said, "I thought I would get burned, but no damage done." Theresa, an adept student of adult behavior, knew there was more to Joan's reaction. She also knew from past experience that if they became aware of her presence they might stop speaking. However she decided to risk it, by saying," Well, I guess I have to go to bed now, so Joan will tell you what she saw."

" What do you mean, Honey?" Megan asked. " Well, something scared Joan, Jez saw something too, look at her." Jezebel stood very still, a low growl coming from her throat as she stared into the fire, the hackles still up on the back of her neck. Dr. Sherman broke the tension before it could build by stating his intention to go to bed, also reminding them all that they had another long day ahead of them. Sal gratefully accepted the doctors suggestion and started putting out the sleeping bags. Joan grabbed hers, climbed inside and didn't speak another word until the next afternoon. Jez slept between Colleen and Theresa, with one eye open toward the fire. Megan and Juniper discussed what Theresa had said and remembering their own childhood decided it would be unfair to exclude the girl from adult discussion, however unpleasant it might be. In the times to come, what Theresa learned might save her life and theirs. Neither Megan, nor Juniper could arrive at a conclusion regarding her reference to Joan's being frightened. They didn't think Joan could be frightened of anything. They passed off Jez's reaction as weird animal behavior, but agreed that she was a very good watch dog. They were quieted by Sal's yelling at them rudely to "shut the hell up."

The natural order of nomadic travel was quite different than traveling in what had once been a civilized world. The women slept as a group near the fire. The two older men slept just outside of the ring, and the three younger men traded hours of guard duty. On their third day out, Billy Jo spotted a small group of people traveling on a dirt road to the south of them. Juniper wanted to make contact, but was quickly reminded that they were to avoid contact with others. Seeing her disappointment, Dr. Sherman suggested they take a rest and watch the group from afar. It wasn't long before the strangers stopped at a farm house. Within a few minutes thick black billows of smoke rose up from the house. " There's one of the reasons for keeping to ourselves." Dr. Sherman said. "Avoiding contact with those types may just be the hardest task we have." From her perch on top of the cart, Theresa asked," Did those people burn that house down?"

" They did." The doctor answered," They were probably looking for food and when they didn't find any, they got angry and set the house on fire out of frustration and ignorance." Dr. Sherman realized as soon as he spoke that Theresa might be worried about her own house, so he quickly added," but people will find the food we left at your house and maybe they'll live there."

Dr. Sherman felt confident that he had been able to allay the child's fear when she smiled sweetly at him and returned to her needlework. However, Theresa knew very well that every ounce of food that had been in her house, was packed tightly below her. "You don't need to worry about me, Dr. Sherman," Theresa said, "I know the bad times are just beginning, but Ellden says we'll survive."

The doctor knew he shouldn't be surprised at her concern for him, she was a very intelligent and caring person. As he started to apologize to her for his placating attitude, her last phrase stopped him. They all thought it was a strange thing for her to say, but when asked who Ellden was, Theresa shrugged her shoulders and was unable to explain to their satisfaction, stating only that he spoke to her in her dreams. She couldn't help giggling when she repeated one story he had told her of cooking breakfast for Juniper one morning. Juniper was stunned at the mention of that breakfast and pressed Theresa for a description of Ellden, which the girl was happy to give. It was then that Juniper's awareness blossomed. Now she had a much greater understanding of the unity underlying all events, crazy as they might seem. The cart seemed to become heavier, instead of lighter as the days passed. Everyone took turns pulling the double harness. The most surprising event on their trip was that Joan had suddenly become extremely helpful, not only willing to offer assistance, but often insisted on taking the turn of someone else on the harness. She did this without comment and all could see a slight glow emanating all around her. The egocentric and spiteful persona had disappeared. Although the change was welcomed by all, it was extremely alarming. Sal too, was changing rapidly, although due to his quiet nature, it was less apparent. Juniper was the only one to notice, at least, in the beginning. At one point Megan commented on the drastic changes in Joan, and Sal was unable to stop the words that came from his mouth, "The closer Gaf gets to the gate the faster the vibration of the planet becomes." He quickly added, "Why the hell am I saying this shit?"

" The vibration of the planet?" Juniper guessed as she giggled.

Un-amused, Sal went off to hunt for firewood. Thanks to Billy Jo fresh game was plentiful, and Theresa proved the value of the many hours she had spent over the winter pursuing her knowledge of edible plants and medicinal herbs. The increase in exercise combined with fresh air and good food made them all healthier than they had ever been. As they continued, they changed their route slightly, although the way would be difficult, they decided not to risk entering the city of Cortez. In the middle of the third week, they began to climb the foothills of the San Juan National Forest. The road was paved, but still had many patches of winter snow. There were no other tracks. Travel became extremely difficult and as they climbed the air became considerably cooler. Although the weather was warming, they were delayed two full days by a violent thunderstorm. What had begun as a refreshing morning rain, turned into a furious storm by noon. They huddled under some pine trees and watched in fascination as the lighting flashed across the mountain tops. Billy Jo managed to make a small shelter using a couple of rubber ponchos. The women huddled underneath; grateful, for the moment anyway, that the male portion of the population felt a need to exhibit their stamina by bravely sitting underneath the soggy, dripping branches.

It was impossible to start a fire so they ate only the leaves and roots they had gathered along the way. They were completely drenched and miserable. After the rain finally stopped, they had to spend the majority of that day drying out their gear. Only Dr. Sherman seemed unaffected by their unfortunate situation. " How do you manage to stay so cheerful, Doc?" Juniper asked. "

I don't think it's cheerfulness," he answered, "more like accepting the inevitable. I guess when you reach my age, you become more tolerant. Besides, the rain has stopped and the warm sun feels good on my old bones. I must admit that a fire and some hot food would be much better."

Hearing the doctor's request, Billy Jo responded," We ain't goin' no where today, so you're likely to get your wish. At least you will if we can find some dry wood."

Billy Jo started the search for firewood and to everyone's amazement Colleen stood up and followed him around the camp. It was the first time since Danny's death that Colleen had showed any sign of self-initiated activity. Billy Jo never said a word, but merely accepted his wood gathering companion. He found enough dry leaves and twigs to start a small fire. Then with an axe, he split enough wet wood to expose the dry centers. He splintered some of the dry wood from the center of the logs and very slowly built a campfire. Colleen stood silently nearby until Juniper directed her to the camp privy. Colleen usually responded mechanically to requests, but never took any action on her own. If Juniper and Megan didn't keep her on a bathroom schedule, her body would relieve itself where she sat. Seeing some self-direction develop in Colleen gave them all hope for her recovery.

After their evening meal, they were much more relaxed. Dr. Sherman gathered them around the campfire, saying he had a little surprise for everyone. With increasing anticipation, Theresa watched as he slowly reached for his pack. While his stiff fingers slowly untied the laces, he said, "When we were packing, I told you that we could only take the bare necessities. At least, only those items we would need to survive. However, on the day we left, I realized that while we might be prepared to meet our needs for food and shelter, we were lacking in other areas." With a sly grin the doctor slowed his movements even more. He knew that this may be the last pleasant surprise for quite a while and wanted to make it last. Also, seeing the look on Theresa's face, he couldn't resist adding a touch of theatrics. He withdrew a collection of books, and some very mysterious items wrapped in tissue.

Glancing at Theresa, who was nearly screwing herself into the ground from the excitement, he continued his speech, "Joan, this book belonged to Molly, I think she'd like you to have it." he said, handing Joan a well used copy of 'Where Two Worlds Touch'. Joan was pleased by his thoughtfulness and accepted the gift with grace. "And next, for Megan and Juniper, a book you may need in the near future, at least," he added with a wink, "If my suspicions are correct." Juniper laughed as she read the title aloud, 'Layettes, Crotchet and Knitting for Infants'. "Come on over here, Ben, I have a little job for you." Ben walked over and knelt nearby and accepted the small journal. "These pages are blank, waiting for you to write your perceptions of our adventures, a sort of diary recording major events. And now for Sal and Don, I'm sure you both will enjoy a book I've read many times. It's titled 'Leaves of Grass', by Walt Whitman, it has a way of directing your mood and thoughts to the truly important goals of life." Reaching into the pile of packages, Dr. Sherman pulled out a small oblong box and said," I'm not sure who should have this, but surely there must be one among us who has some musical talent. It's an old harmonica I found in Colleen's sewing room." Seeing the harmonica, Theresa began to cry and with tears running down her face, told Dr. Sherman that it had belonged to her dad. After a moment of silence, Billy Jo reached for the box and said, "It ain't gonna be no radio music, but I remember a few tunes my daddy taught me."

Theresa took hold of Billy Jo's hand, indicating her approval. There were three packages left, a thick one, a thin one and a rather curious shaped bottle. Underneath them was an old copy of the 'Farmers Almanac'. "Now, for you my sweet Theresa, this is sure to put a smile back on your face." Theresa excitedly tore the paper and revealed two chocolate bars. Screaming her delight, she hugged the old man and then sat near her mother, "Look, mom, chocolate!", she said, as she put a small piece of the candy into her mother's mouth and then one in her own. Dr. Sherman picked up the 'Farmers Almanac' stating that they would receive many hours of entertainment from the humor inside. "This item is a tribute to our future. I've been saving it for over three years and this seems to be as good a time as any to use it." Dr. Sherman unwrapped a bottle of Cognac. The smooth liquor offered them a pleasant reprieve from the hardships they had endured. And last, but not least, he said, holding up the last package. Very slowly he unwrapped and displayed a state of the art remote control. "In the days ahead, if we find ourselves in a situation beyond our control, we'll just change the channel."

Uproarious laughter filled the glade. In the years to come, the notation of this statement in Ben's journal was very confusing to the students of antiquity. Sipping her drink and looking thoughtfully into the campfire, Joan said, "I've got to hand it to you, Doc. You sure know how to travel. That is probably the last bottle of Cognac in the world." The orange embers of the campfire danced to the tune of the cool spring breeze. Rising sparks floated dreamily through the dark boughs of the whispering pines, and the warm caresses of the Cognac lulled them to sleep. From the high mountain meadow overlooking their camp the owl called and a dark shadow slipped quietly from its perch.