The silence was almost oppressive for a long minute. Then the squeal of a pig broke the moment and the gaggle of small children came tumbling out of the barn, chattering and pointing at where the freighter had gone.
“Are you alright Erin?” Alex asked her. She smiled and sighed.
“I’m fine. Let’s get these pigs divided up and then see about ferrying the stuff up to the top of the valley.”
They started the three tractors and allocated troopers to drive them. Erin gave each of them directions to the correct homesteads. Luckily the builders of the colony had had the foresight to actually number the cabins, starting with number one at the top and working their way down. The first tractor, laded with belongings for homesteads one through seven set off up the hill, with the right families following along behind dragging suitcases and crates of poultry behind them. Each trooper had a paper list of who belonged where, so hopefully there would be no squabbles over the allocation of housing.
Erin’s own things were still where they’d been dropped. She spent a few minutes sorting out which boxes were hers, before selecting a crate of poultry for her own homestead. She went and chose herself three ewes and a nanny goat from the barn and put them together in a small pen. Different breeds of sheep, she thought with satisfaction. All of them with different kinds of wool, and a decent milking goat. She’d let someone else keep the rams and billys. Casting her eyes over the weaner pigs and sows, she decided on two of the pigs. Again, she didn’t have the manpower necessary to work with the breeding stock. From what she’d seen on the freighter, there were several families who would be more than happy to have the bigger animals.
By this point, the other two tractors had started up the valley, leaving only a small handful of families behind. She went and rummaged around in one of the boxes of animal equipment in the barn for a moment, until she’d found what she was after.
“Come on,” Erin said to the Jones and trooper Mead. “I’ll walk you up to your homestead. It’s only a mile up hill.”
“A mile?” Daisy said in distress. “Oh that’s so far.”
“No, it’s not.” Erin laughed. “It’ll take us twenty minutes, maximum. Then you and the kids can explore the place whilst I bring these two back for the belongings once there’s a tractor free.”
On their walk uphill, they stopped by the barn that a number of horses and cattle had been sheltered in. Erin looked carefully at all of them, before selecting animals for both her and the Jones’. She wanted a horse that could be ridden as well as learn to plough, and a solid, sensible cow that would give a decent amount of milk and a good eating calf.
They led their chosen beasts a short way further up the valley, until they came to a small, tidy looking cabin bearing the number twenty four.
“Here you go Daisy,” Erin said with a smile. “Make yourself at home. Put your cow and horse out in the little paddock there Albert. I’m about a quarter of a mile further up,” she pointed. “I’ll take these up and meet you back down by the corral.”
Before they had a chance to complain, she led her animals off.
Cabin twenty three was in about a perfect a spot as it was possible to get, she decided as she walked up to her new home. It was positioned just how she’d pictured it from the photographs, and the midday sun was showing it in its best light.
“You go in there,” she said aloud to the cow and gave her a pat on the rump as she turned her loose in the paddock. “However, you,” she said to the horse. “Are going to earn your keep as from now.”
From over her shoulder, she took the bridle she’d dug out of the equipment stash and spent a few minutes carefully fitting it to the animal’s head. Soft brown intelligent eyes watched her every move, not afraid or nervous in the slightest. She’d chosen a sturdy looking mare, not the prettiest or flashiest animal in the stables; but her build and temperament were exactly what Erin wanted.
In spite of the six year gap since she’d last sat a horse, Erin managed to scramble up onto the animal’s back with little trouble.
“I’ll call you Belle,” she said to the mare, who flicked her ears and stood calmly whilst Erin settled herself on the broad, brown back. “Now don’t go doing anything stupid, as my legs are going to be as much use as spaghetti for a while.” With a nudge, she set the mare into a walk and headed back down the valley.
She got a few startled looks from various folks as she ambled back down the hill bareback on the brown mare, but blithely ignored them all. It felt so good to be on a horse again. When she reached the main corral, there was a tractor sat by the pile of belongings boxes.
“Don’t bother putting mine on there,” she stopped Belle by the surprised troopers who were loading. “I’m going to get a sled out of the barn and pull it up there.”
“Does that animal know how to drive as well as ride?” Alex asked, walking up. Erin shrugged.
“No idea. Now is a good a time as any to find out.”
He didn’t bother trying to argue with her, and stood to one side and watched as she fetched some harness and a horse sled from the stores of equipment. The mare stood patiently and didn’t even roll an eye when Erin got her to walk a few paces dragging the sled. With a satisfied little nod to herself, she loaded four of her eight boxes and her crate of poultry onto the sled. Jumping up onto the mare’s back, and without a backwards glance at anyone, she set off up the hill at a stately walk.
She was extraordinary, he thought in admiration. Absolutely extraordinary.
By the time the majority of belongings had been delivered to the correct homesteads it was approaching late afternoon. Erin was on her fifth trip with Belle, and the animal seemed as tireless as she was. She’d taken the rest of her boxes and her suitcases up second, then two loads of hay, straw and animal feed. Now she was about to ferry the piglets up in the empty poultry crate with a couple of containers of stores and oil, and lead the goat on a halter.
“How are you going to get the sheep up there?”
Erin looked up from where she was strapping the crate firmly to the sled and smiled at Alex.
“I’m going to herd them up with the mare,” she told him. “Once I’ve got all the bits and pieces dragged up that need it, I’ll take the harness of her and we’ll trot down here to fetch the sheep.”
“Didn’t you want a matching set?” he asked, glancing over at the pen.
“Nope. Mix and match, greater diversity of genes. Plus when I put them all to the ram in the autumn, I’ll know which lambs belong to which ram for breeding purposes.”
“Ok,” he held his hands up. “Too much information.” He ran a tired hand over his eyes. “Joneses all settled?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Mead was a good choice for them – he calms Daisy down no end.”
“Where do you lot live anyway?” she asked him, climbing up onto Belle.
“Up past you, between homesteads sixteen and seventeen is a large bunkhouse and two miniature cabins. Owen and I get one each and the troopers get the bunkhouse. Although from what I can gather, quite a few are choosing to camp on ‘their’ homesteads for the first few nights.”
“Bless,” she said with a laugh. “Well, if you want something to eat, call in on your way past. I’m coming back down for one more load before I fetch the sheep, then I’ll be cooking.”
“Thanks,” he smiled up at her, and she had to resist the temptation to smooth his hair back. “I just might do that.”
Erin helped herself to her share of the provisions after dropping off the piglets into her barn, and then once back at the homestead, stripped the mare of the harness. It got hung on a peg in the barn and the sled was propped up against the wall. Then she and Belle enjoyed a leg-stretching canter back down the gentle slope to the corral.
The mare was amazing, she decided. She had the feeling the animal could work all day and not tire. After a few false starts, Belle even picked up the rudiments of herding sheep and Erin got her chosen ovines into the paddock a lot quicker than she’d expected.
After rubbing the mare down and feeding her, Erin turned her out into the paddock as well. Leaning on the porch rail in the afternoon sunlight, she spent a moment admiring her little herd. The cow, three sheep, nanny goat and mare all wandered about peacefully grazing. In a pen in the barn were her two weaner pigs – she’d have to build them an outdoor pen shortly, she decided. And the poultry were fussing around in two of the stables in the barn. She wasn’t taking any chances with the indigenous predator, she’d decided. Once she’d constructed a solid hen house, then they could come outside and forage during the day.
Turning into the house, Erin realised she hadn’t even given a thought to lighting the woodstove. The chill in the air, however, made her think that it might be a good idea to get at least a small fire going in the fireplace. It had been a fair few years since she’d laid a fire of any description.
It seemed that starting fires was like riding a bike – you never forget how to do it. Within the space of half an hour, she had both the fireplace and the woodburner lit and ready to cook. After spending a few minutes in perusal of her stores, both those she’d brought up from the landing site and the basics the people who’d built the colony had seen fit to include in her kitchen pantry, she rolled up her sleeves, dragged her kitchen equipment box into the cooking area and set to.
After a while, she realised the light was failing, so she went hunting through another box and pulled out a number of lamps. They’d actually equipped the cabins with a few oil lamps, but it was quicker and easier for her to light the ones she was used to working with. Humming tunelessly to herself, she lined the three pie dishes with pastry and crossed to the fire to stir the contents of the iron cauldron that swung on a hook above the flames. The contents were mainly rehydrated as she had little fresh stuff to work with; but by judicious seasoning and spicing, she’d mixed up a very creditable beef and vegetable type filling for the pies. It seemed about ready, so she carried the pie dishes over one by one and filled them, before placing the pastry lids on top and popping them into the woodburner’s oven.
This would be the real test, she thought. At least the rehydrated stuff cooked quickly, so she’d been able to rustle up something to eat in less than an hour. Whilst they baked, she pottered around, putting things away and setting a couple of scoops of beans to soak for the next day. I wonder if I could try bread in there, she thought to herself; and that’s how Alex found her, up to her elbows in bread dough in her largest mixing bowl.
“What on earth are you doing?” he asked, opening the door at her call of ‘come in’.
“Trying out my first bread,” she told him. “I’ve got a new woodstove to learn, so I thought I may as well start sooner rather than later.”
“What smells so good?” He wandered around, sniffing the air. He was still in uniform, Erin noted, although he’d undone the top two buttons of his jacket as a nod to informality.
“Pies in the oven.” She brushed her hands off over the bowl and crossed the kitchen to have a quick peep. “Another ten minutes, say.”
“How on earth have you done all this?”
Surprised, she looked up at him.
“What do you mean? Done what?”
“This.” He gestured around the room. Whilst hunting for the bits and pieces she’d wanted, Erin had unconsciously unpacked half of her things. There were books on the table by the kerosene lamp, her clock was on the mantle next to a couple of family heirloom ornaments. She’d laid a thick, braided rug on the floor between the two armchairs and hung a blanket over the doorway to the storeroom, with a smaller matching blanket over the little window by the dining table. They were only a few touches in the large, bare wooden room, but the reds and oranges in the blankets and rug picked up highlights from the fire and the lamps; and the friendly mellow ticking of the old clock seemed to keep the darkness outside at bay. “It looks lived in already.”
“If you light a lamp and close the drapes, you make anywhere look homely,” she told him.
“Who taught you that?”
“My mother.” That wistful smile again, he noticed.
“So what’s in this pie?”
“Beef and vegetable. I’m afraid it’s rehydrated stuff, until I start the garden, but I’m hoping to get digging tomorrow.”
She put the kettle over the fire and set the water to boil whilst she kneaded the bread.
“Just take a seat,” she told Alex, who was prowling around the room. “You’re making the place look untidy. Sit down, relax and just stare into the fire for a while.”
She glared at him flatly, but he did as she’d said. By the time she’d finished beating hell out of the bread dough and had set it to rise in the huge bowl, he’d relaxed more than he’d thought possible. There was something so soothing about listening to the spit and crackle of flames, the gentle tick-tock filling the minute silences and the rhythmic sound of bread dough being kneaded.
Erin crossed to the fire and took the steaming kettle from the hook with a padded handle. He watched as she expertly poured boiling water into a coffee pot and set it on the dining table.
“Come and sit down,” she invited him. As he took his place, she put a steaming pie onto the table, with a bowl of cooked carrots, one of the few vegetables they actually had fresh supplies of. A jug of gravy finished the simple meal. “It’s not the best fare I’ve ever served up,” she said by way of apology. “But it’s the best I can do under the circumstances. It’s hot and it should keep you going until breakfast.”
“It smells divine,” he told her.
It tasted just as good, he decided. He ate fully half the pie and half the carrots, and sat back with a sigh as she poured them both a cup of coffee.
“You don’t take milk, do you?” Erin asked.
“I don’t like the powdered stuff.”
“This is fresh from the cow this afternoon.” She held up the jug.
“In that case, yes please. And when did you find time to milk a cow today?”
“Before I came down for the sheep. She was lowing and looked a bit miserable, so I guessed what was up. Once I’d milked her, she was fine.”
“Is there anything you don’t know how to do?”
“I can’t dance,” she shrugged, picking up the dirty plates and putting them in the big sink. As she cleared the table, she thought hard. “I’m not very good at art or drawing; and I can’t hold a tune or sing to save my life.”
“Don’t be flippant.”
After Alex had left, bearing a pie to drop off at Daisy and Albert’s homestead, and an oil lantern to save him tripping over anything, Erin tidied up and went upstairs to look at her bedroom.
The large double bed was on the mezzanine floor above the living room, and there were a set of bunks to each side of the room. Ample space for a single person, a bit crowded for a family of five or six, she decided.
It was fully dark now, so the best course of action, she determined, was to go to sleep. That and she was absolutely exhausted from the day’s events. Hopefully tomorrow would be a little less hectic. Before she climbed between the sheets that had been thoughtfully provided, she banked the fire up, damped down the woodburner and had a quick wash at the sink. She’d have to fill the big jug up again from the stream in the morning, she noticed. Maybe there was some way she could rig a pipe from the stream to the sink.
Tomorrow, she told herself, blowing out the lamps. There will always be something to do tomorrow.
The rest of the week was fine and sunny, and Erin acclimatised herself to the slightly shorter days by getting up when it got light and going to bed not long after dark. Her first day’s attempt at bread making was moderately successful, so each evening she mixed up another batch of dough, making minute changes to the basic recipe each time, and by the sixth day, she’d found the right mix of yeast and oil and salt that gave the bread the perfect texture.
Her experiments hadn’t gone unnoticed either. She was in the habit of leaving her front door wide open whilst she pottered around the homestead and the smell of baking bread drew more than one passing colonist onto her porch. She was always happy to stop and talk and give them the basic recipe and instructions on how to make bread. In between these little lessons, she fetched the smallest of the ploughs from down by the corrals and rigged a harness for Belle to pull it. Choosing the sunniest, flattest bit of ground within her homestead, she ploughed up about a quarter of an acre and then used the sled to cart up a load of the treated manure from the freighter.
By the end of the week, she’d planted half of her seed potatoes, rows of peas and beans and root vegetables, spinach and salad greens and dug over a small seed bed to start leeks and cabbages off in a sheltered spot.
The cow was giving her nearly six pints of milk a day, so she started to skim the evening milkings, feeding the skimmed milk to the weaner pigs with their mash and saving the cream in a large milk urn she kept in the ice cold stream. At the weekend, she poured all the cream into the antique butter churn that the house builders had provided and turned several pounds of butter.
That afternoon, Alex appeared on her doorstep. It was the first time she’d seen him all week, and the sight of him made her heart leap in her chest in the most ridiculous of manners. Get a grip, she told herself irritably.
“There are rumours, you know,” he said, knocking on the open door and walking straight in. “This homestead has a miraculous kitchen.”
“Oh give up,” she laughed at him, and deftly wrapped the last pat of butter up in greaseproof paper. When she had time, she would preserve it properly in a butter crock with salt, but for now, she couldn’t see it lasting long enough to make it worth the use of all the salt.
“I’m serious. The tales of the smell of baking bread that floats up the valley and drives strong men to distraction are growing.”
“Would you like some supper?” she offered.
“I’d love something. I’m starving.”
“Not eaten all week?”
“I’ve been living off rehydrated packets whilst trying to sort that lot out at the top end of the valley.” He sank gratefully into the armchair she pointed at.
“I wasn’t having much tonight,” she said. “Just some poached eggs on toast. But I can offer fresh eggs, and real butter on the toast.”
“You’ll have every trooper in the valley lined up outside your door if you aren’t careful. That sounds good to me.”
“What’s been happening up the top then?” Erin asked, hunting out the frying pan and putting it onto the woodstove.
“I think more than a few people just weren’t prepared for the lack of modern conveniences here.” With a sigh, he ran his fingers through his thick, black hair, making it stick up at all angles and causing Erin to want to smooth it back down again for him. “Would you believe someone even lugged a small entertainment unit here, and is now complaining like hell that there’s no electricity to run the damn thing.”
“There aren’t any satellites to feed it either,” Erin said with a smile. “I hope they brought some movie disks with them.”
“The thing is shot, Erin. The electromagnetic field that fluctuates around this planet does terrible things to electronics. It wouldn’t work now, even if you took it back to Earth.”
“No one thought to tell these people that though, did they?”
“That’s not my fault. It was all in the briefing papers they received. Hell, most of the colonists here have had months of preparation for this trip.”
“Months?” Erin stared at him in surprise. “I got two days!”
“You were an exception,” he told her. “The judge knew about this trip because he’d sent someone to the previous colony up north. He also knew you’d be an asset to us. But the majority of people here have been down on the list for at least two months. We’ve got people from all over Earth here, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“I may be quiet but that doesn’t mean I’m not observant,” she retorted. “We have English, French, Americans, Australians, Canadians and a South African here. Oh, and a Greek.” She stared hard at him.
“Actually I’m Egyptian, but my parents were Greek,” he told her offhand. Her scowl turned into a laugh.
“Do something useful and go and fill the kettle up.”
“Yes ma…” he swallowed the rest of the word. “Will do.”
By the time he returned from the stream, the smell of toast was mouth-watering. Erin had the slices of bread speared on a toasting fork and as fast as they browned, she buttered them and put them onto a warm plate. When she’d made six slices, she crossed back to the woodstove and cracked four eggs into the pan of water that was sat simmering on the hotplate. Whilst they cooked, she hung the kettle over the flames and measured coffee into the pot.
“So what else are they complaining about?” Erin asked Alex as they sat down to eat. He paused for a moment to close his eyes and savour the smell of hot buttered toast before answering.
“Lack of electricity, lack of plumbing, lack of running water. They have no clue how to use the composting toilets or light the woodstoves.” With a reverent sigh, he took a large mouthful of egg and toast. “This is very good. They’re living on rehydrated food at the moment, but even the dumbest of them are starting to realise that the packs aren’t going to last them more than a couple of months. Only, they have no clue as to how to start their gardens, let alone what to plant and how to tend it. Most of them have had to be reminded to milk their cows by Peter I’anson on more than one occasion.”
“Isn’t he helping?”
“Some, but he’s spread so thin up there. And he’s not as much use as he could be – his kind of agriculture is all modern tractors and fields the size of small cities.”
“Are the troopers helping?”
“They’re trying, but we have a few stubborn nuts who are going to be hard to crack.”
“I’ll do it,” Erin said offhand.
“I said crack, not flatten.”
“I didn’t mean that.” She growled at him in irritation and the noise made him smile. “Don’t laugh at me Alex. I meant, I was offering to help. If you want to send them down here for an afternoon, with their troopers, one homestead at a time, I can teach them how to try and survive, if not try to start living properly.”
“Of course I would. I’m a teacher after all. If I’m here I may as well try and be of some use, and the least I can do is show them how to make bread using their stores, and turn the milk into butter. As well as show them how to light the woodstove and cook on it.”
“I’ll go up the top end tomorrow and sound them out. Are you willing to have Mr Greer and his wife here?”
“They’ve got Trooper Thomas, haven’t they? I think it would be fine.”
“Don’t you miss any of the comforts of home?” asked Alex curiously. He burst the other yolk with a corner of toast and watched the rich golden liquid seep across his plate. Who would have thought a simple poached egg would taste so good, he thought.
“Not really. I miss the music, as I used to listen to classical music all the time, but if I’m outside, I’ve got the birds and such to keep me company. I never really used much of the kitchen equipment I had. Didn’t watch satellite or films.” She finished her meal and sat back. “I’d dearly love a long hot shower, but tin baths are old hat. I grew up somewhere very similar to this Alex. To me, it’s like coming home, without all the politics and rhetoric. For the first time in my life, I’ve found a quiet corner I can live in and if I were to be totally honest, I love it. As long as I keep myself out of trouble, and avoid any situation where I could possibly be goaded into losing my temper, I’ll be quite happy to spend the rest of my life in this little corner of the universe.”
Alex heard the conviction behind the words, and for a long, painful moment, found he envied this quiet girl her peace. He, too, would like somewhere peaceful, he realised. Only, he wasn’t allowed it. He had to follow orders, and like any good soldier, he would do so. Allowing the peace of Thetis to sink into his soul wouldn’t do him any good at all when it came time to leave. He could, however, make sure that Erin’s quiet corner wasn’t disturbed if at all possible.
“I’ll see what I can do to keep that peace,” he promised her. “And I think you’re right, these people do need a few lessons on how to learn to live here.”
“Just send them down after lunch,” she told him. “I do most of my work in the morning anyway.” The kettle started to steam, so she got up and poured water onto the coffee. The smell filled the warm, homey cabin. “Would you like milk or cream with your coffee?”