Unexpected Catch

By Eric Oppen

©2018, Eric Oppen

This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Eric Oppen in 2018, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.

September 4, 2009 (Change Year 11)

Hardee County, Provisional Republic of Iowa

“It’s good of you to help out with this, Jenny,” Nick Cleveland said, as he and his companion dismounted and tied their horses’ heads to branches overhead. The Hardee River flowed by not far away, and birds sang in the trees.

“I don’t mind. It’s a change from my usual work. And Melinda’s busy up at your Farm.” Jenny Trout, a tall, rangy, swarthy woman, wiped some sweat from her forehead and brushed a stray strand of her coarse black hair back. Most of her long hair was gathered in a ponytail, as was her custom when work was to be done.

“What work is that? Horse-doctoring, or subversive songs?” Nick gave his friend a mischevious grin. Jenny Trout was a traveling horse-doctor, welcome nearly anywhere in Iowa for her skill at healing sick or injured horses. In between that, she was a singer, singing in taverns and other gathering places for whatever people would pay. Quite a few of her songs were subversive of established authority, and the State Police regarded her with deep suspicion. Nick was, at least in public, a staunch Haselroad supporter, but he recognized that quite a few Vakis resented their situation, and he felt that a harmless outlet would likely prevent trouble. He was happy to provide her with hospitality when she was in the neighborhood, both for the sake of his own horses’ health and because he loved music.

As a Deputy Sheriff, Nick had some clout of his own, and wasn’t shy about using it when necessary. He, and his Sheriff, had informed the local State Police that any harm done to Jenny Trout by the State Police would be avenged. Many Farmers had joined in on that warning. While they didn’t all care for her songs, they all valued her services highly enough to put up with that minor annoyance.

“Horse-doctoring. Music’s my passion. Horse-doctoring is what I do to keep food on the table.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ve seen you sitting up all night with sick horses enough times to know that you care about that, too. Maybe not as much as your music, but you do care.” Nick turned toward the river. “Well, time to haul in my fish trap and see what I’ve got, isn’t it?”

Nick had built a fish trap a couple of years after the Change, making it out of wide-gap wire mesh and treated wood. The mesh was so that small fish, the kind that still could grow large, could swim in and out easily, while larger fish had to go in by the entrance, which was designed so as to not let them swim out again. Fish traps were in common use, since people now fished for food, not sport. The fish population in the lakes and rivers had rebounded spectacularly once the last of the chemicals the farmers had once put on the land had washed out to sea. One of Nick’s jobs as a Deputy Sheriff was keeping an eye on people’s fish traps, since some people were quite willing to rob others’ traps, and that led to all sorts of trouble.

The trap was tethered safely to a nearby tree, and Nick waded out into the water to remove the weights that held it in place. Once the weights were off, he splashed back to shore, and he and Jenny both hauled on the rope, pulling the trap out of the water. Within it, some fine fat catfish and bluegills flopped, and Nick’s eyes lit up. “Yummy!” Visions of a fish fry danced in his head. Like many who’d been through the Change and the years afterward, he never took food lightly or for granted.

Once the trap was emptied, Nick and Jenny set to work, cleaning the fish and putting them into a canvas sack that Nick had brought along. As they were doing this, Jenny looked up… and stiffened. Nick noticed what she was doing, and raised an eyebrow as she brought her finger to her lips, signalling for silence.

“Over there,” Jenny muttered. “Behind the big pine tree. Do you see her?” Nick slowly turned, as though he were doing nothing more than retrieving a tool he’d left in one of his saddlebags, and narrowed his eyes. Sure enough, half-hidden behind a pine tree’s branches, he saw a skinny girl peering out at them shyly from under a mop of white-blonde hair. At least, Nick thought it was a girl due to her hair being so long; in Iowa, men kept their hair cut short, as a rule, albeit not as short as they would probably have done before the Change, and with razors rare, beards were more widely worn than before.

When she saw that he was looking at her, the girl ducked back out of sight. Nick bent to his work, but watched carefully out of the corners of his eyes. Gradually, like some wild creature unaccustomed to people, the girl came out of hiding, approaching very slowly. Nick could see how thin she was, and how ragged her clothes were, and that gave him an idea.

“What do you say we pause for some lunch, Jenny?” Nick winked, and Jenny caught on fast. She pulled out the bulging picnic basket that Nick’s Farm’s chief cook, Julie Schleicher, had packed for them. As usual, Julie had packed as though Nick and Jenny were going to be gone for a month in a barren wilderness, but at the moment, Nick was very glad that they had so much. Ceremoniously, he spread out a blanket on the ground, and laid out a picnic, making sure to set three places.

Wide-eyed, the girl crept closer, as though she feared capture. Nick said, apparently to the air, “There’s plenty for all, here. No need to be shy!”

Nick’s words apparently reassured the girl, and she came up slowly, sitting down on one side of the blanket and looking at the food as though she had never seen such a feast before. Nick wondered where she had come from. Was she a wild girl from Illinois? he wondered. While the Mississippi border with Illinois was guarded, and the river itself was wide, it was not unknown for feral folk to slip across the river on moonless nights and infiltrate their richer western neighbor. Some of them just needed food and a bit of re-education, and were pathetically grateful for a chance to join civilization. Others, sadly, had been cannibals for too long, and couldn’t be re-oriented. They had to be killed. Nick hoped that if this girl was one of the wild folk, she wasn’t a cannibal.

“Do you like milk, sweetie?” asked Jenny. She produced a ceramic jug full of the milk that Nick’s cows had given earlier that day. The girl nodded, and when Jenny poured her out a cup, she drained it in one swig. That seemed to set her off, and she dived at the food, stuffing herself with both hands while casting suspicious glances at the adults, as though she expected them to try to take the food away from her.

“Easy, sweetie! There’s plenty of food! No need to try to stuff it all down at once! You’ll make yourself sick if you do that!” Jenny laughed. Then she gave the girl a long, considering look. “Er, sweetie…when did you eat last?”

For the first time, the girl spoke, looking shyly at the adults with big silvery-gray eyes. “Yesterday. I found some apples on the ground. They were soft and mushy, and had worms in them, but I ate them anyway.” Nick and Jenny exchanged glances. That did not sound good.

“Well, you can eat as much of this as you want, sweetie,” Nick reassured her. “By the way,” he asked, “where are you from? I don’t think I know you and I know most people around here.”

“Oh, I’ve seen you before, riding by in your uniform with your badge and sword,” the girl said. “You’re the Deputy for this township. You didn’t see me, because I was hiding.” For the first time, she smiled, and it was a little like the sun coming out. “I’ve learned to be good at hiding.”

“Okay, you have the advantage of me, then,” Nick said. His years of experience dealing with his own children, not to mention the children of Farmers and Vakis who’d wandered off and got lost, served him well. Once he’d have been at a loss as to what to say or how to act, but now he knew. “But could you tell me where you come from?”

“I live on the Andersons’ farm,” the girl said, mumbling around a mouthful of pulled-pork sandwich.

“I didn’t know a child was missing from that farm,” Nick said to Jenny, in Krigsprak, the stripped-down, Anglicized German that was used in the Iowan military. They were both officers in the reserves and had learned it not long after it had been introduced.

“She looks like she’s been living very rough,” Jenny answered in the same language. The girl looked at them in wide-eyed wonder. Nick didn’t think she’d have ever heard any language spoken but English; foreigners had been thin on the ground in most of rural Iowa after the Change, and Iowa had little or no contact with any foreign-speaking areas. That was why Krigsprak had been developed; it allowed Iowan soldiers to communicate privately. Someone had come up with the idea after hearing some people from the Amanas speaking German with each other, but the Amanas were a couple of days’ ride away.

“What’s your name, sweetie?” asked Nick, in English. He knew everybody in his township, at least by name and reputation, and once he had a name for this girl, he was confident he could place her. “Do your parents know you’ve been out here?”

“My name is Selene Lieber,” the girl replied. “No, Mommy doesn’t know. I’ve been out here for nearly a week. I kind of lose track of that sort of thing.” At this, Nick and Jenny looked at each other. Nick was getting worried, and he could see that Jenny was, too. Nick only knew one Lieber, and knew nothing good of her. He hadn’t been aware that the woman had a daughter, but he’d had little to do with the Andersons, for the most part. Their Farm was orderly, their Vakis well-fed, on the whole, and content.

“Well, why don’t you come on back to my place with me and Jenny? That way you can sleep in a real bed, and get a bath.” Nick had noticed that the girl smelled rank; not really foul, or like she had an infection, but he could tell that she had not made the acquaintance of hot water and soap for a while. That, alone, told him that she wasn’t lying about having been living rough for a while. All the Farm wives he knew, and that included Mrs. Anderson, were fanatical about cleanliness, partly for its own sake and partly to stave off the threat of diseases. Since the Change, one thing everybody feared was an epidemic.

Selene looked at Nick, her silvery-gray eyes wide with wonder. “Me? Ride on a horse?” That told Nick a great deal all in itself. Almost all Farm children, Vaki and Farmer alike, were trained to riding and could handle horses from a young age. Since tractors and other such machines no longer worked, farms were powered, as they had once been, by horses.

“Yes. Ride on a horse. You needn’t worry. My horse is very tame, and we won’t go too fast. I have a pillion on my saddle, and you can sit on that.” Nick gathered up his picnic fixings and stowed them in his saddlebag, and then took his fish and put them into another bag, slinging it from his saddle. Then he mounted up, and Jenny handed Selene up to where she could perch on the pillion behind him. As she clutched Nick’s sides, Jenny quickly adjusted the pillion’s stirrups so that they were the right length for Selene to use.

Once they were all three mounted, they set off for Nick’s Farm. It had once been a youth camp, and wasn’t far from the river. The horses made easy work of getting through the underbrush, and soon they were on the re-gravelled road heading up to the main gate at Nick’s place, just as the clouds that had been gathering began to let loose with rain.

❀ ❁ ❀

As they rode in, Nick’s own twin children, Allan and Allison, came running up to see what their father had brought home. “Dad! Dad!” yelled Allan. “Look at this! I’ve got that old pump back working again! We can have more water from the well!”

“That’s great news, son!” Nick leaned down, ruffling his son’s coal-black hair. Ever since he could walk, Allan Cleveland had been mad about gadgets, taking everything he could find apart and putting it back together to see how it worked. He was horribly frustrated that the pre-Change devices that still could be found around mostly couldn’t be made to work by any method available after the Change, but he made up for it with a ferocious determination to make everything else he could find work. Nick thought that he was a natural for the engineering school at Iowa State University, which was one of the best places to learn post-Change engineering that he knew.

“Who’s that? Behind you?” asked Allan’s twin sister, Allison. Unlike her brother, she had no interest in gadgets. Her passion was healing, and she had already begun following their local nurse, Ann Hager, around, pestering her with questions while learning-by-doing. She had a burning ambition to go to medical school and be a “real doctor,” and Nick had already begun pulling strings at Goldfield, the county seat, to get her a scholarship.

Melinda Yang Cleveland, Nick’s wife, came up behind her children. “I see that you two are back,” she commented. She gave Selene a quizzical look. “And, unless I’m much mistaken, there’s a little girl there, under all that caked-in grime.” Selene squirmed shyly. “Come here, dear. I’ll get you into the bath house, and we can clean you up.” Gently, she scooped Selene off of the pillion and put her down on the ground, wrinkling her nose a bit at the smell, and led her off toward the bath house. Wide-eyed with curiosity, Allison tagged along with her mother and the new arrival.

Once Selene was off his saddle, Nick dismounted, handing Allan his bag of fish. “You get that into the icehouse, and we’ll prepare them later. Right now, I want to get a look at this horse’s hooves.” While they had been riding back, Nick had noticed that his horse was favoring her right front foot, and he thought there might be something wrong. “Jenny, could you help out with this?” Nick and Jenny led their horses into the barn, and got to work.

A little while later, Nick was absorbed in helping Jenny apply a poultice to the horse’s hoof, when he noticed that his daughter was standing there, watching him. She was wrapped in a towel, and her hair was wet, so Nick knew she’d been in the bath house.

“Daddy?” she asked. “Mommy wants to see you. In the bath house.” As Nick straightened up, Allison gave her father a stern look. “Mommy said ‘sort of now-ish,’ so I think she’s serious.”

“Then I’d better go see what your mother wants, hadn’t I, Allison?” Leaving Jenny to deal with the horse, knowing that her skill was far greater than his, Nick walked over to the bath house to see what his wife wanted. He knew her, and knew that when she put things that way, she was serious.

The interior of the bath house was steamy and rather dim, with only a few glazed windows high up providing light. Melinda, wrapped in a towel, was squatting down beside Selene, who was also wrapped in a big towel. Selene was shaking her head emphatically. “No. Don’t want to show him. Mommy says I’m a bad girl. She says the devil’s in me, and she has to whip him out.”

“My husband is the Deputy Sheriff of this township, and he has to know about this sort of thing. He won’t hurt you. I promise. Nobody here will hurt you. A Deputy Sheriff’s job is to ‘protect and serve.’” Melinda’s voice was very gentle, but Nick could see the anger blazing in her black eyes. What could have set her off so badly? he wondered. Gently, but firmly, Melinda turned Selene so that she was facing away from Nick, and slipped the towel off so he could see her back and buttocks.

Nick gasped in horror. From the back of Selene’s neck down to the backs of her thighs, the girl was a mass of welts and bruises. Some of them were old enough to have scarred over, while others were covered with scabs, and he could see a few of them weeping pus. In all his years as a Deputy Sheriff, Nick had seldom seen worse injuries, and never on a child so young.

With an effort of will, Nick forced himself to speak softly and gently. “Selene…sweetheart… could you tell us how this happened, please?” Wrapping herself up in her towel, Selene turned and looked up at him, her expression so poignant that Nick felt tears prickling the corners of his eyes. “Who did this to you, sweetie?”

Selene looked down at her bare feet. “Mommy does it. She keeps having times when she thinks that I’m the devil’s child, and she has to whip the devil out of me.”

“How often does this happen, sweetie?” asked Melinda.

“About twice a week, these days. When I was little, it wasn’t so often.” Melinda gave Nick a look that boded ill for Selene’s mother. Nick understood why she was angry. He was angry, but he could not afford to be too impulsive. Sheriff Graves, down in Goldfield, frowned on his Deputies going too far off the rails in the pursuit of their duties.

Allison came back in with some ointments. “Here are the ointments you wanted, Mommy. May I apply them? Please?” Selene looked at Allison, and nodded, turning her back and letting the towel slip away again as Allison gently dabbed and rubbed at her back. “There, there,” Allison crooned, as she worked the ointment into Selene’s abused flesh, “I’ll get you feeling better!” Then she looked up at her mother and father. “Mommy? Daddy? Can we keep her here for a while? I’ve never had a patient all of my very own, and I want to try out all I’ve learned!” Nick smiled to himself. His daughter had always been a managing sort, and he sometimes called her “Little Miss Bossyboots,” affectionately. And when she was healing something, she had ferocious focus and will.

“I think that’s the plan, sweetie. That is, if your mother says so.” Catching Melinda’s eye, Nick raised an eyebrow, and Melinda nodded emphatically. “Why don’t we find you some better clothes, and you can come on in for dinner.”

By the time dinner was served, Nick had spread the word. “We’ve got an unexpected guest. Selene Lieber, from the Andersons’ Farm. She’s had a bad time of it, and she’s pretty shy. Don’t make a big fuss of her, just treat her like she’s always been here, and don’t ask her snoopy questions!” As the family—Nick’s own immediate family, Jenny, Selene, and Nick’s Vakis—sat down to dinner, Nick smiled to see that they were following his instructions perfectly. No less than any other Farmer, Nick prided himself on impeccable hospitality to any guest at his table.

After grace was said, conversation flowed along normal lines, with discussion of the weather predominating. Outside, the rain had turned into a real thunderstorm. Again and again, the house shook as lightning struck nearby, and thunder pealed loudly. Nick was very glad that he’d managed to persuade Selene to stay. She was a skinny little thing, and while she might have had some sort of makeshift shelter, he didn’t care for the thought of her out there, soaked to the skin with the wind howling the way it was.

When it was bedtime, Selene was shown to one of the guest bedrooms, next to the ones that Allan and Allison had been given when it had been decided that they were too old to be sharing a room any more. Selene looked at it, wide-eyed, and whispered “Thank you,” before slipping between the thick wool blankets and putting her head on the pillow. High up on the wall, a well-shielded votive candle provided just enough light to see by, and she’d been shown where the jakes were in case she needed them in the night. Allan and Allison were both excited to have a guest close to their own age, even if she was a couple of years younger than they were, and it was a while before they could be persuaded to head off to their own beds.

❀ ❁ ❀

A piercing scream jerked Nick back to full consciousness in a second; that was one reflex he’d picked up in the fighting along the Mississippi right after the change that had never left him.

“NO! NO! Don’t hurt me! I’ll be good! I’m sorry, Mommy!”

Nick came boiling out of his bed, grabbing his sword from where it stood nearby, as Melinda started awake, reaching for her saber.

Running down the corridor, Nick found an unexpected tableau. Selene’s room’s door was open, and Selene was sitting up, eyes running with tears, as Allison held her close, murmuring soothingly. “There, now, it was just a dream. Just a bad old dream. Daddy and Mommy get those kinds of dreams sometimes. I’m here now. I’ll stay here with you till day comes, and no nasty old dreams will come back. My brother and I will protect you. You’ll just have happy dreams.” In front of the door, Allan Cleveland stood, with a chete in his hand and a look of cold determination in his eyes. Nick had seen that look before, in enemies who fully planned to kill him. He had never thought to see it on his own boy, even though Allan’s expression softened when he saw that it was just his parents, and Jenny, who’d come hotfoot on Nick and Melinda’s heels, a Bowie knife in one hand.

When she saw that her parents had come, Allison explained: “Selene had bad dreams, so I’m going to bunk in with her, or maybe have her bunk in with me, so I can keep her safe.” The set of her chin told Nick that talking her out of it was out of the question. He nodded, then fixed his gaze on his son, who stuck out his chin defiantly and gave his parents stare-for-stare.

“And what do you have planned with that machete, Allan?” Nick asked. While his tone was gentle, he made sure that it was firm enough that Allan knew that it wasn’t a question where an answer was optional.

“I heard our new friend screaming, so I grabbed it and came running. I’m going to stay here till dawn. If anything or anybody tries to hurt my sister and our new friend, it’ll have to come through me first!” Nick felt a burst of incredible pride go through him. His twins might be just twelve years old, but he knew that they would grow up to be some incredible adults.

“That’s a very good idea, Allan,” said Melinda. She went into another guest room, and came out with a wooden chair. “Why don’t you sit here outside the door, and keep your sister and your new friend safe? We know we can trust you!” Allan nodded, and sat down once he’d arranged the chair so that the back was to the guest room’s door. Nick peeked inside before he shut the door, and he smiled to himself to see his daughter and Selene falling asleep, wrapped in each other’s arms.

Too keyed up to go back to sleep immediately, Nick headed for the kitchen to get a drink, with Melinda and Jenny right behind him. Once the drinks were poured, Nick shook his head. “Children. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they go do something you never expected.”

“Something that makes you so proud,” Melinda murmured, her eyes bright with tears in the candle light.

When they had finished their drinks, the adults headed back to their beds. Before he turned in, Nick looked in on the children. The door to Selene’s room was firmly shut, and Allan was sitting in his chair right beside it, the chete across his lap and an expression of resolve on his face. Smiling to himself, Nick went back and climbed back into bed.

❀ ❁ ❀

The next morning, Nick noticed that Melinda wolfed down her breakfast as fast as she could, before rising and heading toward the stable. He followed her in as she headed toward her riding horse. “And where do you think you’re going, love of my life?” he asked. He had a pretty good idea, but he wanted to be certain.

Melinda turned, her pretty face set in grim lines. “I’m going over to the Andersons’, and I’m going to have a little talk with the monster who mistreated that sweet little girl!”

Nick narrowed his eyes, and grabbed her by the arm before she could pull free. “No, love of my life. You are not going to the Anderson’s.” Melinda’s expression grew ominous, and Nick hastened to add: “We are going to the Andersons’. I’m still the official Deputy Sheriff for this township, you know. I’m the one with the official authority. I can take official action, which you can’t. I can’t have you haring off on your own, galloping off with your hair on fire screaming for triple revenge. If nothing else, Sheriff Graves would have both our guts for garters.”

That last got through. Sheriff Graves had been Sheriff since before the Change, and he was a Hardee County institution. Nobody, from the richest Farmers down to the lowliest Vakis, wanted to displease him. Although he normally stayed in Goldfield, the county seat, he was known to have a nearly supernatural talent for turning up when least expected, and when he turned up, evildoers and wrongdoers had reason to regret their mistakes.

Swiftly and efficiently, they saddled up and rode out into the misty morning. As often after a good rain, there were patches of fog and mist around, but it looked like the sun was going to burn through and it would be a hot day. In Iowa, summer often lingered far into September, and before the Change, that had not always been a good thing; many schools had not been designed for use in the summers, and they were often unbearably hot inside.

Melinda’s agitation communicated itself to her horse, and she gave a wordless snarl as it pranced restlessly. “Calm down, Melinda,” Nick said. “We’ll get there soon enough. And when we do, I’ll take the lead. Got me?” Ignoring her mutinous look, Nick cantered on ahead, giving his horse her head. The horse was clearly glad to get out for some exercise, and Nick was honestly glad to get out in the open. He’d always enjoyed riding through the countryside, and that was one thing that he thought was better after the Change. The things he missed, he had put into a box in the back of his mind, and carefully did not think about.

❀ ❁ ❀

The Andersons themselves came out when they saw who had come. “Deputy Cleveland! And Mrs. Cleveland! What brings you here?” They looked worried, and Nick knew why. Generally, unless he was out on his usual rounds, having him at one’s door did not mean good things had happened.

Dismounting and tethering his horse to a hitching post, Nick asked: “Did you know you’re missing one of your Vakis?” As she dismounted, Melinda gave the Andersons a hard, cold stare. Nick caught her eye and shook his head slightly to remind her to let him take the lead this time.

“Really? Who?” Jim Anderson looked worried. “Nobody’s planning to move out, or I’d have heard about it!” While Vakis were theoretically entitled to leave their Farmers, not many did, since travel cost money, new agricultural land required tools and labor to put it into productivity, and the cities were distant, particularly when traveling on foot. It was also harvest season, and many Farms had town-dwellers on them as temporary extra help to get the crops on in. Nick thought that might be part of why he hadn’t noticed Selene disappearing.

Even so, though, everything that happened on his Farm was Jim Anderson’s responsibility, just as everything that happened in River Rock Township was Nick’s responsibility. Jim knew that if something had gone badly pear-shaped, he’d be answering to Sheriff Graves, and possibly to a judge and jury down in Goldfield, the county seat. Nick could see sweat beading on his brow, despite the cool morning. Farmers had been sentenced to terms in the coal mines when they were found guilty of negligence or crimes.

“Her name is Selene Lieber. By her own account, she’s been out of here for about a week. Jenny Trout and I found her down by the river when I was pulling up my fish trap yesterday.” Nick turned to Melinda, who was visibly steaming. “Care to tell the Andersons what sort of shape she was in?”

“She was famished, poor thing! She told Nick that the only thing she’d had for a while was some wormy old apples she found on the ground.” Melinda took a step forward, her face twisting into a snarl and her hand hovering over the hilt of her saber. “And her back was a mass of welts and cuts from the whippings she’d been taking! I never saw the like in all my life!”

The Andersons goggled at Melinda in horror. Nick watched them carefully, and judged that their shock was perfectly genuine. He hadn’t thought that the Andersons themselves had had anything to do with Selene’s abuse, either directly or indirectly, but it was nice to have confirmation. “She says that her mother has fits of thinking she’s the Devil’s child. Last night, she awoke my whole household, and Jenny, with a screaming nightmare about her mother.” Nick pointed his finger at Sam Johnson. “I want to see that woman. Now.”

Sam’s wife, Andrea, turned to a nearby Vaki. “Joe, you go tell Margaret Lieber that the Deputy wants to talk to her.” Joe’s eyes went wide, and Andrea said: “Do as you’re told!” The Vaki loped off toward the Vakis’ cabins. Andrea turned back to Nick and Melinda. “Margaret Lieber lives off by herself a ways. She’s a hard worker, but she doesn’t get along well with the other Vakis. It’s just her and that girl, off in that cabin, and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve left them to their own devices.”

“You’re supposed to be keeping an eye on the Vakis, Mrs. Anderson,” Nick purred. “Yes, I know. Running a big Farm is a full-time job, and things sometimes do go by the boards. Even so, though, this is not a good thing. Child abuse is one thing that Sheriff Graves and the State Police agree on.” Nick smiled without an ounce of humor in it. “And I agree, too!”

“We’re glad you brought this to our attention, Deputy,” Sam assured Nick. “We’re really sorry that we let things go on and get this out of hand. Margaret doesn’t encourage us to take much of an interest in her, and that daughter of hers is a fey little thing, very elusive when she wants to be.”

“Yes, we never do see much of her,” Andrea chimed in. “She does her chores, she attends lessons with the other children, but the rest of the time, she might as well be invisible! She goes her own way, and seems to be living in her own little world. God knows, there are enough people who do that for us not to notice it!”

“Yes, you do have a point,” Nick conceded. The shock of the Change had affected a lot of people’s minds, with results ranging from full-blown madness on down to mild eccentricity. And when the Change itself hadn’t done it, the upheavals and fighting afterward often had. Nick himself had spells when he was withdrawn and lost in memories, but those had been less and less common since he’d taken on his Deputy’s duties. He was busy enough, these days, for that sort of problem to be a rarity. But Selene had apparently been born a couple of years or so after the Change. He wondered what was wrong.

There was a burst of yelling from behind the Andersons’ farmhouse, and Joe came back, with a heavy-set, unkempt woman following him. The woman was doing the yelling. “Why are you dragging me out here? Is it about that limb of Satan?” Nick gave her a narrow look. He had seen her around on his previous visits to the Andersons’ farm, but had not connected her to the things he had heard at third-hand about Margaret Lieber.

Still and all, duty prescribed what he had to do. “Mrs. Lieber?” At this, the woman gave him a hostile glare. “I’m here about your daughter. She’s turned up, and we’ve got her at my place. You’re probably worried about her.” Nick paused, looking for a reaction. Seeing none, he went on: “Why was she out in the woods for this last week?”

“She’s a daughter of the Devil! She’s got the Devil in her, with those nasty silvery eyes! I’ve got to beat the Devil out of her!”

“There are laws against child abuse, Mrs. Lieber. And against assault and battery. Are you saying that you committed assault and battery on your daughter?” Nick’s voice was icy. Inside, he was completely calm and collected. He’d been here before, many times. The first few times he’d had to haul someone in, he’d been secretly terrified, but over the years, he had grown into his job until it was part of him.

“She’s my daughter! Mine! Mine, do you hear me? You have no right interfering between us! Give her back to me and the thrashing I'll give her will make what I gave her before she ran off look like nothing! This is none of your business!” screamed Margaret.

Nick shook his head. “You’re wrong, Margaret. Your daughter is a citizen of Iowa, no less than you, or I, or anybody else. She came to me and she’s under my protection. When a citizen cries out for help, the law must not turn a deaf ear. The law is the law, and is the same for everyone. And I am the law!”

At this, Margaret screamed incoherently and took a swing at Nick. Nick had been anticipating such a move; he’d had to learn a good deal of martial arts in his work, and he had noticed that Margaret was moving her feet so as to make a swing at him easier. He blocked her easily, and punched her in the stomach as hard as he could. Margaret folded up around his fist, letting out a loud “Oooof!” of pain as her knees gave way and buckled under her. Once she was down, Nick whipped out his handcuffs and cuffed her efficiently.

“That’s assault on a Deputy Sheriff in the performance of his duties, on top of the other charges. You’re coming along down to Goldfield. Mrs. Anderson?” Nick turned to Andrea Anderson, who had been watching the byplay with horror. “Get your buggy out, and load this prisoner into it, and follow us down to Goldfield.” Nick looked down at Margaret, who had begun to make weird noises and roll her eyes. “I’d make her walk the whole way, but that’d take longer. And I do think this madwoman needs to be in a cell, soonest!”

As the Andersons turned to give orders to have their buggy pulled out and hitched to horses, Melinda nudged Nick in the side. “’You are the law,’ are you?” she asked. A smile played around the edges of her face, although to someone who did not know her well, she would have looked solemn. “I never knew I was married to Judge Dredd!”

“‘I am large, I contain multitudes,’ as Walt Whitman might have said,” Nick answered. “Think of it this way: With so many people in one body, you’ll never need to look elsewhere for variety!”

With willing help from some of the Vakis, Margaret Lieber was loaded into the Andersons’ buggy, foaming at the mouth and howling incoherent snatches of Scripture liberally mixed with profanity and threats. Sam Anderson climbed in and took the reins, and the little procession headed out for Goldfield.

❀ ❁ ❀

That evening, Nick and Melinda rode in to their home, both worn down badly. Doing the seventeen-mile trip to Goldfield, and then back home, in a day, had been tiring, and they were both saddle-sore. Jenny Trout was finishing up her work with their horses, and talking with a neighboring Farmer about some veterinary care that his horses needed.

“How’d it go?” asked Jenny.

“Long, long day,” Nick answered, swinging down from his saddle and rubbing his rump. “Like the old cavalry classic, Forty Years in the Horse Cavalry, by Major Red Arseburns!” He took off his battered old campaign hat and used it to brush some dust off himself.

“Did you straighten out Mrs. Lieber? Will Selene have to go back?” That was Allan. He’d been fiddling with a gadget in the horse barn, and came over to help his parents with their horses, as he’d been taught to do. “I hope she doesn’t have to go back!” A shadow passed over his face. “I got sick when I saw what that woman did to her!”

“That made you sick, did it?” Nick patted his son’s shoulder; Allan had got big enough that more demonstrative affection embarrassed him. “Good! That shows you’re still sane and your heart’s in the right place.” Allan smiled at the praise. “No, it looks like Selene is staying here with us, at least for some while. Why don’t you run tell your sister and Selene?”

As the boy ran off to find his sister, Jenny turned to Nick and Melinda. “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” Nick nodded. “Now that he’s out of the way, what happened? Was it bad?”

Melinda looked very grim. “That woman’s barking mad, and apparently has been for some time. She did her work, and didn’t show it around the Andersons much, which was why she escaped our notice. However, once she was in cuffs, some of the Vakis came forward with some interesting stories. We’re going back there in a few days to take statements down.”

“So is she going to the coal mines?”

“Not likely. Cherokee’s likelier.” Even before the Change, the town of Cherokee had held the State of Iowa’s main facility for holding the mentally ill who’d been deemed a menace to themselves or others. “Any jury that sees her in her current state will have her off to Cherokee in a heartbeat.”

❀ ❁ ❀

At the hearing, it went about as Nick had predicted. The judge and jury heard Nick, Melinda and Jenny Trout testifying, and then asked Margaret Lieber for her side of the story. The torrent of incoherent abuse mixed with scrambled Bible verses that they got made the verdict a foregone conclusion. Afterwards, Nick and Melinda were called in by Sheriff Graves.

The saturnine, sallow Sheriff sat behind his desk and regarded them with a blank look on his face. Nick knew his boss, and knew that the Sheriff preferred to keep a poker face, and keep his own feelings and thoughts to himself. Accordingly, he waited for Sheriff Graves to speak.

“While I should commend you for exposing this situation, I do wish you could have done so sooner. The reports I have seen about that girl's condition concern me. Child abuse can be a hard thing to recover from.” The Sheriff’s voice was even and calm, as it almost always was. Nick couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Sheriff Graves raise his voice.

“I take full responsibility, sir,” Nick answered. Sheriff Graves nodded slightly in approval; he did not approve of subordinates who tried to blame others for their own mistakes. “All I can say is that the Andersons themselves did not appear to be aware of the situation. Ms. Lieber came to their Farm not long after the Change, and she always did keep to herself. The Andersons were surprised to find that she’d fallen pregnant, since she didn’t seem to keep company with any men.”

“The Change affected many people for the worse, Deputy. Hopefully, they’ll know what to do for her in Cherokee, or at least keep her confined so she cannot harm others. Now, the question of what to do with little Miss Lieber comes up before us. Do you have any thoughts?”

“Sir, with your permission, I’d like to have her stay on with us, at least for a while. My daughter’s taking care of her, and she’s overjoyed to have a patient of her very own.” Nick glanced at Melinda, and got a nearly-imperceptible nod. “And Melinda would be very happy to have another child around the place.”

“I see. How do you feel about it?” Sheriff Graves steepled his fingers, his black eyes unreadable.

“My take is ‘there’s always room for one more,’ sir. We’ve got the room, my family wants her to stay, and I’m not averse to the idea at all. Melinda and I wanted more children, but couldn’t have them.” Some little while after the arrival of the twins, Melinda had fallen ill, and while she’d recovered in most ways, she could never bear children again. Nick had held her and wept with her when the news had been broken, at the hospital in Goldfield.

“Very well. I shall recommend that Miss Lieber stays on with you. The Commissioners will almost certainly have no problems with that.” The County Commission did most of the day-to-day governing of Hardee County, but Sheriff Graves’ recommendation went a long way with them.

❀ ❁ ❀

At first, Selene was as shy as a wild creature, barely speaking to anybody. She submitted quietly to Allison’s treatments, and to an examination by Ann Hager, a pre-change RN who lived nearby.

When Nurse Hager was done, she took Nick and Melinda aside. “Apart from those scars, and the side-effects of ongoing malnutrition, there’s really very little wrong with her. Feed her up and she’ll be all right, physically.” She shook her head slightly. “I can’t vouch for her mental state, though. The Andersons’ Vakis had some things to say about her mother.” The nurse scowled. “I wish I had heard about this earlier! I’d have had words with that woman, at least, and with Mrs. Anderson as well.”

Nick nodded. He knew that Ann Hager, like the other nurses he knew, was fiercely protective of her patients. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see Ann taking on a hungry tiger barehanded, if that was what it took to protect a sick or injured person. While their jobs were very different, he considered the local nurses to be professional colleagues, working with him to ensure the well-being of Hardee County’s residents. They took care of day-to-day medical problems, with the traveling MD on call for when things got serious.

Melinda said: “She’s going to be staying with us for a while. My twins would be heartbroken if she left, and Allison’s happy to have her very own patient.”

Nurse Hager smiled broadly. “That girl’s got the right stuff! I’ve seen her work, and she knows what she’s doing!” Nick and Melinda had managed to obtain, one way or another, a good few books on first aid and medical care under primitive conditions. The one that Allison used most frequently was Where There Is No Doctor, and she had all but memorized it. Unofficially, Allison was in charge of day-to-day medical matters around Nick’s farm, with Nurse Hager on call nearby for things she couldn’t handle.

“I wonder if we’ll be let keep Selene for long?” Melinda mused. “Does she have any relatives close by?”

“Don’t know, love of my life,” Nick answered. “Sheriff Graves is looking, but he’s got a lot of other things to do. The Andersons haven’t been much help on that front.” The Andersons had known only a little about Margaret Lieber. She had come to their farm along with a bunch of other Vakis when the cities’ excess populations had been relocated onto the land, to take the place of the farm machinery that no longer worked.

According to the Andersons, she had always kept to herself, and had discouraged others from taking an interest in her. They had no idea who Selene’s father was, but after the little girl was born, Margaret had been odder and odder. They had always planned to find out what was going on, but what with the hundred-and-one details of running a farm that had unexpectedly become a feudal manor, investigating one Vaki who seemed to be obeying the rules had not been a priority.

❀ ❁ ❀

A couple of days later, Nick was working on his saddle, rubbing oil into it to keep the leather pliable and supple, when he noticed he had company. Sitting on a haybale, Selene Lieber was watching him with wide silvery grey eyes full of wonder.

“What are you doing, sir?” she asked, her voice low. She had perked up since she’d come to live at the Cleveland farm, but she was still shyer than Nick’s own children, or the other younger children that were around.

“I’m taking care of my riding tack, sweetie. If I don’t do this, it’ll get stiff, and if water gets on it, it’ll start rotting. Saddles are expensive and hard to make, so I take care of mine.” One rule that Nick enforced fiercely on all who dwelt with him was that saddles and horse-tack and other leather goods were to be cared for very conscientiously. He set a good example partly from policy and partly because he really didn’t mind the chore.

After a moment where Selene was clearly digesting this, she went on: “Can I help you?”

“Of course! Here, let me show you!” Nick took down a bridle, handed it to Selene, then got another bottle of oil. “Now, you rub the stuff in gently, like so, to keep the leather supple and soft. That’s it. You’re doing just fine, sweetie. Once you’ve oiled up the whole bridle, hand it over to me so I can see how well you’ve done.” Selene solemnly followed Nick’s instructions, concentrating on her work with narrowed eyes. When she was done, she handed Nick the bridle, and he smiled.

“Very good, Selene! That’s good work. You pick this up quickly!”

Selene looked down, suddenly shy. “I didn’t want you to hit me if I did it wrong, sir.”

Nick reached out, gently tilting her chin up so that they were looking into each other’s eyes. “Firstly, I do not hit people for making honest mistakes, especially children. If you’d done it wrong, I’d have shown you what you did wrong, but I wouldn’t hit you.”

“But Mommy always—“

“Is your mother here?”

Selene shook her head. “You told me she was going off to somewhere called Cherokee. But I still see her in my dreams. Your daughter sleeps in with me and protects me, but I still dream about her.”

“You probably will have bad dreams, off and on. I have them too.” At that admission, Selene’s eyes went wide. “Yes, adults get bad dreams, too. We aren’t that different from children. Melinda and I were children once, after all.”

“I’m sorry you have bad dreams, sir.” Rather to Nick’s surprise, since Selene had been rather shy about being touched, she came forward and hugged him. “They’re no fun, are they?”

Gently, Nick hugged her back. “No, sweetie, they aren’t fun at all. And, secondly, you don’t need to call me ‘sir.’ You’re part of my household now. You can call me by my name.”

“Okay—Nicholas.” Selene cocked her head to one side, reminding Nick of a little owl. “It’s kind of strange, calling a grownup by his name.”

“Well, I’m not your father, so you can’t call me ‘Dad,’ and I’m not your uncle, so you can’t call me ‘Uncle.’ And I’m not ashamed of my name. It’s not a pretty name, like yours is, but I’m used to it. If you called me ‘Sebastian,’ or ‘Jonathan,’ or something silly like that, I’d get all confused.” At this, Selene giggled. Nick hadn’t heard her laugh before, and hoped it was a good sign.

When Nick had finished with his saddle and bridle, he saddled up his horse and put the bridle on. “I’m going out riding. Have you started learning to ride yet?”

“Allan and Allison have begun teaching me. They’ve had me up on one of the ponies, since they say that’s best for a beginner.”

“Excellent!” In the post-Change world, horseback riding was an essential skill, particularly for rural people. Distances were long again, and the fact that Iowan counties were all sized so that the most remote residents could get to the county seat and back again by horse-and-buggy or on horseback was functional once more. Nick had made sure that all of the residents of his Farm were qualified on horseback as soon as he could.

❀ ❁ ❀

A couple of weeks later, Nick was riding out on one of his routine patrols when Selene came up. He reined in and looked down at her, noticing that she was already looking better-fed and healthier than the skinny starveling he had taken in.

“Nick? Where are you going?”

“Out on patrol, sweetie. This is what I do.”

“May I come?”

Nick thought about it for a second, then nodded. “This should be a routine patrol, just about ten miles all in all. Yes, if you can saddle up a horse, you can come.” He waited, watching carefully to make sure that Selene did not make a mistake, as the girl saddled up one of the more docile horses and mounted on up. Soon they were riding out on to the road, heading out into the misty morning.

Nick hadn’t been sure what it would be like, having Selene along, but he soon found that she had her uses. The first Farm he stopped at, the McLeans’, usually gave him a rather cold welcome. The McLeans did not welcome prying eyes around their Farm, and although Nick did not think they were up to anything hinky, he did not enjoy going there. Not this time, though. John McLean was working on a plow in his farmyard when Nick came riding up, and did a double-take to see who was riding alongside him.

“I can’t believe it! Is that the little wood-sprite I’ve seen around?” He came up, looking at Selene closely. Nick watched carefully, ready to take action, as Mr. McLean reached out and offered his hand for Selene to shake. She was getting better, but was still a bit shy around people she hadn’t met. “Welcome to McLean Farm, whoever you are!”

“My name is Selene Lieber. I was living with my mommy down on the Andersons’ Farm, but Mommy had to go off to Cherokee, where ever that is. Now I live with Nicholas and his family.”

“And how do you like it there?” This was a side of John McLean that Nick had never seen before. The McLeans did not have children of their own, and he had never seen either of them dealing with children. Their Vakis’ children were never much in evidence when he came by.

“I like it a lot. I get all the food I want, and nobody is allowed to hit me. Deputy Nicholas’ children are very nice to me. Allison’s been working on healing me up, and Allan has been helping me learn things like riding.”

McLean smiled broadly. “That’s wonderful! Are you going to be helping Deputy Cleveland on his work?”

Selene suddenly smiled. “If he lets me. I like riding around, and I know that I’m safe with him.”

McLean nodded. “That’s good. He’ll be good to you.” Turning to Nick, he said: “We’re lower than we should be on alky. I haven’t been able to catch anybody doing it, but someone’s almost certainly stealing the stuff.”

Nick nodded. Every farm had a still, and produced alcohol for fuel. While the stuff was harsh-tasting, it could be drunk. “Shrinkage” was a widespread problem, and Nick knew perfectly well that there was at least one speakeasy in River Rock Township, selling stolen white liquor to Vakis.

“Who has access to where it is stored?” Selene asked. “It’s kept locked up, isn’t it?”

“It sure is, Selene,” McLean assured her. “It’s locked up in one of the outbuildings, with a pre-Change lock—and I have the only key.”

“Let’s take a look at it, shall we?” All three of them headed over to the outbuilding in question, a pre-Change shed. To Nick’s eye, it looked solid enough. He wondered if McLean did have the only key, or if there was another one floating around somewhere.

Nick looked closely at the door. It looked to be solid. He bent to examine the lock, taking out a magnifying glass to see if there were signs that someone had tampered with it. He couldn’t see any scratches or other signs that anybody had been meddling with the lock. Meanwhile, Selene wandered around to the back. Nick straightened up, and Selene called: “Nicholas? Could you come here, please?”

Curious, Nick went to see what his newest family member had found. Selene was kneeling at the back of the building, looking at one of the boards that made it up. “Look, Nicholas!” She pushed at the board, and it slid off to one side, revealing a narrow slot. “I think I’ve found how people are getting in here!”

“Uh, sweetie, I don’t think that’s wide enough for a person to get through,” Nick said, squatting to look at it. To his eye, it did look narrow, and he knew he would never have fit through.

“An adult couldn’t—but I could!” Suiting actions to words, Selene bent down and wriggled through, getting in with little trouble. “And once she was in, a kid could fill up bottles and hand them out to an adult. No problem!”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” McLean muttered. “I think we’ve found where the leakage is, at least! Come on out of there, little miss.” After Selene had crawled out, McLean marked the sliding board. “I’ll get back out here with a hammer and some nails, and get this thing fixed. In the meantime, how would you like some cookies?” Selene’s eyes lit up and she nodded.

A little while later, Nick and Selene were riding down the road to the next Farm that Nick intended to drop in on. Selene reached into the bag she had been given and pulled out a cookie. She reined over to Nick’s side and wordlessly offered it to him. Only when he had taken it did she reach in for a cookie for herself.

Once both cookies were memories and crumbs, Selene said: “I want to save the rest. I want to share them with your family. You’ve all been so good to me, and I want to be good to you right back.”

Nick looked at her carefully. “That’s well-thought-of, sweetie. And I’m proud of you for figuring out where Mr. McLean’s white liquor was disappearing to.” He paused. “How did you figure that out?”

“I just looked carefully at the back and sides of the shed, and spotted one board that looked a little different. It wasn’t difficult.”

“You have some real talent for this job, I think. Would you like to come along with me on a regular basis?” Nick had often had Melinda along with him on his rounds, but there were times when his wife couldn’t come. Another pair of eyes would be useful, and Nick knew that women would often talk to another woman—or a girl—before they’d talk to him.

Selene nodded. Nick went on: “We’ll have to talk to Sheriff Graves, but I don’t think he’ll have any problem. There are some women who are Deputies. And when I’m gone, it’ll be good to have someone there to step into my shoes who knows the area and the people well.”

As he rode along, Nick found that he was happier than he had been in a while. He had always wished that his children took more of an interest in his work, but he accepted that they were their own people, and did not share his talents and skills. It would be nice to have someone to talk to, and teach, and hand his badge on to, one day when he was much older.

❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀