The Hudson’s Bay Company Siege

“Esther.”

She startled awake, grasping for her rifle in the dark, but Amos’s gentle hand steadied her. She exhaled slowly. Within her alarmingly large belly, the baby shifted. Esther laid a soothing hand over her stomach, though she herself wasn’t feeling very reassured. They were still sitting on their cabin’s front porch, keeping watch from the hand-hewn chairs they’d brought from the kitchen. She could barely see her husband’s profile against the night sky. They didn’t dare light a lantern, not until they knew what they were facing, but she could see he had his rifle at the ready.

“See something?” she whispered.

“Not sure.”

She leaned forward, peering into the night beyond the planks that enclosed their porch. She had recently turned forty, and her eyesight already left much to be desired. Add in her nearly full-term pregnancy, lingering summer fever, the stress of having been dragged from their home three days earlier by Hudson’s Bay Company men, and the worry over their eight children staying with friends across the Columbia, and she could see just about whatever nightmare came to mind in the silent blackness of their farm.

She’d been surprised the cabin was still standing when they returned – in the past, the HBC would have just burned it down. After all, this wasn’t the first time she and her family had been loaded into a boat at gunpoint and sent across the river by the land-hungry British. But maybe the Company had realized that tactic wasn’t working and decided to try something more permanent.

Esther wasn’t going to let that happen. She’d come here, sick, pregnant, and exhausted, to ensure her children had a home – and family – to return to.

“Amos Short!” The shout rang out from the darkness. Esther seized her rifle. Amos crouched behind the porch wall, sighting into the darkness toward the voice.

“Amos Short, this is the Company. You are trespassing on British land. Come out of your house with your hands up.”

“Think they want me, too?” Esther grumbled.

“They know you’re not worth the hassle,” he whispered teasingly.

A gunshot shattered the relative calm and sent birds shrieking out of the trees. “That’s your only warning!” the voice shouted from the dark. Esther peered over the edge of the wall. She could see lamps and torches flaring to life in a circle thirty paces from the house. The cabin was surrounded.

“You know it’s just the two of us, right?” she hollered. “Didn’t need to send the whole barracks!” There was enough torchlight now for her to see faint shadows dancing on the wall of their cabin – and the grim fury on her husband’s face. “Unless, of course, you’ve heard how good a shot my husband is…”

“Come on out now!” the man shouted. They were close enough now that Esther could hear their footsteps. She glanced at Amos, wondering if he had a plan –

“Company, aim!”

Esther froze, wondering if she’d heard right. Surely they hadn’t come here to kill them – they were just here to arrest them, or send them back across the river, or simply hold them while they burned down the cabin and made them watch –

But before the rest of the Company men could even bring their guns to bear, Amos was back at the wall, rifle poised. He fired.

Esther sat with her back against the porch wall and listened to the chaos while Amos reloaded. The Company men were shouting and, if the shadows on their cabin were any indication, panicking – but no one returned fire.

One voice raised above the others. “He’s dead! Short shot him in the head!”

The shouting died away to whispers. Amos finished reloading, but stayed crouched behind the wall. Esther gripped her own rifle, ready to heave herself up. There were enough men milling around out there, she was sure to hit at least one of them.

But the whispering faded, and the torchlight dimmed. She peeked around the wall.

The farm was dark again. There was no sign anyone had ever been there.

She sank back down against the wall, sighing with relief. “Nice shot, dear.”

“Didn’t really want to kill him. There were so many, though –”

“It was us or them,” she said firmly. “This is our land now, and that’s how they chose to deal with us.”

“Think there’ll be more trouble?”

“Oh, certainly.” She stood slowly. “But I think it’s safe to take the rest of tonight off.”

Into the Constellations

How close to grasping Orion’s Belt
would you get before its tidy trio
stretched or tilted on the angling light-years –
or simply broke?

How deep into the Great Dipper’s bowl
could you dive before it resembled
not a skyborne ladle but something else –
or nothing at all?

How distant would you have to travel
before the spread of night’s dark fabric
stretched flat constellations into sculpture –
or into different shapes entirely?

How far could you fly before you looked back
and saw, with longing eyes and giddy heart,
the familiar night sky patterns
transmuted into a new universe?

How far could you go before your
order-craving mind confessed it could
no longer compress the independent,
far-flung stars into forms it can comprehend?

At that point, I could break, or cry, or dread –
but I think I would sing, and keep sailing.

Tuesday Quotes

Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.

Anne Lamott

Adrift

It was the worst August Esther could remember. Not even the final leg of their journey to Vancouver two years ago had been as terrible as this.

Although, she reflected as she massaged her absurdly huge belly, she had been approximately this pregnant then. Besides, here they had clean water, shelter, and plenty of food. True, all eight children and herself were ill, but it beat having to walk fifteen miles a day. At least Amos was well enough to journey to Oregon City for medicine.

In the other room, Samantha was coughing again. Esther levered herself out of her rocking chair and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The clay pitcher was nearly empty – she’d have to go for more water soon. Maybe Curtis was well enough for that task…

The pounding on the door set her heart racing.

“Missus Short! It’s the Company. Open up.”

She froze. They weren’t supposed to be here – the neighbors were supposed to be keeping watch –

Then she remembered how Samantha had been playing with their daughter, how she, too, had been coughing…

“Missus Short, we will break down this door if we have to!”

She set down the pitcher with a trembling hand. Fine. She was on her own.

She opened the door with as wide and supercilious a smile as she could muster. “And what brings the HBC to my home today?”

The group of men before her seemed to tilt and she dug her nails into the soft wood of the doorjamb. The blood pounded in her ears and the only thing that kept her upright was the thought of what these cretins might do to her children should she pass out.

“I think you know, ma’am.” The leader hefted his shotgun. Belatedly, Esther realized they were all armed. Good thing her illness-clouded senses hadn’t even allowed her to think of grabbing her own gun. She was a good shot, but not that good. Plus, what a mess…

“Something humorous, ma’am?”

The group tilted again and the edges of her vision darkened. In her mind, Esther frantically cycled through the names of her children until the world righted itself. “Not remotely.”

“Then if you’ll come with us, please.”

[]

“Mama?”

Esther blinked, trying to focus. They were in a boat. The boat was in the river. Drusilla was vomiting into the river. Curtis was holding a lone oar. Alfred and Aubrey were crying. So was Grant, his tiny face flushed, his eyes glassy.

She looked back. No smoke over the treeline…at least they hadn’t burned the cabin this time.

“Jerusha.” Her voice came out a low growl. “Hold Grant.”

The boat rocked as her eldest daughter took him. Esther’s head spun afresh but she gritted her teeth and held out a hand to Curtis. “Give me that oar. You lose the other one?”

“They only gave us the one.”

“All right.” She settled onto her knees and fixed her eyes on the shore. “Row with your hands, then.”

He didn’t protest, just rolled up his sleeves.

“Drusilla?”

Tears striped her feverish cheeks and her dress was ruined, but her expression was steely. “Sit up front,” Esther instructed. “Make sure we don’t hit anything.”

“Yes, Mama.”

By the time the boat scraped the pebbled shore on the Oregon side of the river, the sun was setting. Esther’s arms ached and trembled, and she could feel something dreadfully similar to contractions. Curtis’s arms were blotchy from the cold river. Even steadfast Drusilla was crying. Esther braced herself on the prow of the beached boat, willing the baby to just wait a little longer, trying to come up with a plan.

“Esther!”

The shout was so faint, she thought she’d hallucinated it. But as she slowly stood, she saw him: Amos, God bless him, running down the beach toward them.

He caught Esther and every child he could reach in a hug. “Traveling doctor saw you,” he gasped. “Are you all right?”

“I’m mad as hell, Amos,” she whispered.

“I know, darlin’.” He kissed clammy forehead. “They won’t take our land. The Griffiths offered to host us for a week or so to recuperate. After that –”

“The children can stay.” She met his eyes. “They need the rest. Me, I’m going back tomorrow.”

“Mama, the baby!” Jerusha protested.

“Baby’ll be fine. If they burn the cabin again…if they think for even a moment they’ve won…”

Amos studied her for a long while. “Damn, but I do love you, Esther. Tomorrow, then.”

Transcript of a Tape Found Near The Depot, 09-01-35

It used to rain a lot out here. Not as much as some places, but enough that we kinda earned a reputation for it. They would joke that summer didn’t officially start until the Fourth of July because before then it would be in the 60s and raining.

The 60s sound downright frigid now. And rain…let’s see…it rained last December. Early in the month sometime. It’s hard to keep track of dates these days.

It used to be real green around here, too, green and beautiful. The hills had these huge forests all over them, and the downtown buildings stuck up between them like silver pillars. On those nice, sunny days – you know, the ones you got in between spells of rain that you just treasured because they were so damn rare, if you can believe it – on those days, the city looked like something out of the future.

Well, the future as we’d hoped it would be. Exactly the opposite of what we got.

I guess I should say why I’m recording this. Power’s been out for years, obviously, with the rivers too low to run the dams. Before that we were using the Internet to try to get aid, but it was bad everywhere. There wasn’t any aid to send. ‘Round August of the third really bad year, the weather forecasters just quit posting their predictions, because there hadn’t been any change to predict. All those websites just said “help.”

Anyway, some folks had their own generators, so here and there you could get Internet if you needed something real specific that no one else had been able to tell you. But the news just kept getting worse and worse, from all corners of the world. Finally, a year and half ago I suppose, even the folks with generators couldn’t get online anymore. The weirdest part was no one seemed to know why. You’d think with all that information that’d been careening around for so many years, we’d be able to figure out why the world had ended, but all we got were wild rumors about nukes and aliens and liberals.

I guess the real weirdest part was that we didn’t mind not knowing. What difference would it make? Still no water.

Christ, it’s hot.

There used to be huge forests out in the mountains between the city and the coast. I haven’t been out there to see if they’re still standing, but I can guess. There used to be a lot of farmland out there, too, but I know for fact that’s still there ‘cuz that’s where I got run out of. Maniacs cursing the “libs” – those are finger quotes there, listeners – loaded with boxes and boxes of ammo but not enough water to drown a fly. Probably no farming knowledge, either. Good riddance. That land must be looking real bad by now. They chased me out nearly two years ago and even then it was turning yellow. Well, some fields are always yellow, but they’re still green, you know? Still alive.

Oh yeah, the tape. So there’s no more Internet, no planes, hardly any trucks…none that can be trusted to transport stuff, anyway. Paper’s mostly used up. I built a converter for my laptop but I save that for when I boot up to look at my old pictures of my grandkids. They were five and two when the bottom fell out of the world. The oldest should’ve been in high school now if everything…well.

So this tape is my invitation, I guess. I found a whole box of them in a basement so I can record a bunch, put them out here and there, maybe someone will be able to play one.

I’ve found a good spot up in the hills west of the rail depot. It’s small, but the soil does alright, and it’s secluded, which I figure is the most important part.

So if you hear this, come out and join me. I got corn, beans, some tasty cacti, even a couple apple trees. What’s mine is yours, if you’re willing to put up with a cranky old lady made extra cranky by the end times.

Oh, and my name’s Missy. That’s probably important. Look for the blue flag on the split pine. I’ll see you soon.