The man sat in an overstuffed recliner, watching the red-orange light from the woodstove as it cast undulating patterns on the wall and bookcases. The firelight played on a digital clock that used to synchronize with the low-band WWV signal out of Boulder. But Boulder had long since ceased to transmit, and wasn’t likely to resume. It was a quiet morning, colder than predicted. But, weather predictions weren’t very good even in the best of times. Now nine months into the worst of times weather forecasting was near non-existent.
It was New Year’s Eve and the man reflected on the changes the year had brought. Nearly a year ago, there was food on the shelves of the local stores, gas could be had for cash or credit, electrical power was consistent and cheap (relatively), telephones had worked. Now, food was what you could grow or hunt or trade from a neighbor. Power hadn’t seen the lights of the house in around five months. Fuel you used sparingly, for necessary trips or for the tractor to increase your harvest. Electrical power was what you could generate with a combination of gas or diesel generators, wind power and solar. The telephone was intermittent at first, but several storms had damaged the lines and there was no one left to repair them or material resources to be wasted on them.
The man grunted as he lifted himself out of the comfy chair to get another cup of Joe. The morning sun would be clearing the eastern ridge soon and he would then need to see to the chores of the day.
He wore a .45 automatic on his hip, a Springfield 1991A1. As he returned to his chair, he gazed down the hallway at his long arms and pondered which one to take with him today. Probably one of the SKS’, good enough for any short-range work and can take a deer inside of 200 yards if he saw one.
As the gray dawn grew brighter, the light from the fire was subdued and replaced by the brightening light from the window. A heavy frost lay on the ground and all the objects outside, almost snow-like in its cover. In the distance, dark silhouettes of the trees cast fingered limbs up into the sky, seeming to claw the darkness from overhead.
The woman came to him and refilled his coffee mug, giving him a few more minutes reprieve from the day that lay ahead. It would not be a hard day. They were well supplied with food, water and wood for the fire. There were just a few things that needed attending to. None of which required him to leave the property. So much the better; travel could still be dangerous if federal patrols were about.
But, the feds didn’t come down this way much anymore. There was too much resistance and too many people willing to shoot them on sight. They stayed pretty near the big city, over 50 miles to the north. In the city, people did what they were told. If they didn’t, they could be deprived food and water, or a place to sleep. Many would have left if they had tradable goods with which to travel across the now lawless areas between the big cities. They were told that to leave the city would mean certain death at the hands of people gone savage.
It was a lie, of course. The dangers in the rural areas were no worse than when the government was around. Though some of the rural inhabitants were too well accustomed to the entitlement culture, they had quickly adapted to the free life, or left for the cities. The rural people continued to trade food and fuel, parts and seed, news and entertainment. They also kept a watchful eye on the roads from the cities, ever vigilant to protect their property and their neighbors. Communications were maintained through ham radio, CBs, and what few phone systems could be maintained by the technicians who remain in the rural areas.
The cities, on the other hand, were just as dangerous as before, perhaps more so, with the quiet desperation and helplessness that many people felt, most of the time. But lies are how people in power, stay in power. Bribery was rampant between the guards and the people in the beginning, when many had things to trade. But now the trading was done and there was just existence. If you had anything of value, you kept it well hid, even from your friends, lest temptation get the better of them and the worst of you. The guards no longer even worried about trade. If they saw something they liked, they simply took it under some obscure security measure. There were no courts, only commanders who shared in the plunder. It was how things worked in the city. You either helped plunder or were plundered yourself.
The man got up from his cozy rest and put on his insulated coveralls. Then picked an SKS from the wall, a Romanian model, checked the magazine and chamber, and stuffed a few extra stripper clips into a pocket.
He gave his wife a peck on the forehead and headed for the door. As he opened first the inner and then the outer door, his dog bolted past him, afraid he was going to be left behind. The dog sniffed the cold clear air and tentatively stepped off the porch onto the frosty ground. He then turned and looked expectantly at his master; waiting to see which direction, they were going.
The morning sun was just clearing the eastern hills and cast long shadows from the trees across the hayfield to the south. A faint gurgling could be heard as the man and dog went out the south gate and turned east toward the rising sun and a creek that bordered the property. The dog ran ahead and sniffed the ground on the high bank over the creek. The man looked along the creek for sign of game in the still crunchy frost. There was none.
He headed up the creek toward the north end of the property. There was a wood stand that he had been thinning out and he wanted to re-evaluate what he had left to clear. Hickory, Elm, Maple and Walnut trees line the creek on both sides. A few lay on the ground, having been cut last summer and left to season where they fell.
As he approached the north end of the property, he heard the clop, clop, clop of a horse coming down the road that ran beside the creek and up the ridge to the east.
“Stay.” He ordered the dog, which had tensed up at the sound of the horse.
“Mornin’”, said the man.
“Hey”, said the rider. He wore a dark duster over heavy clothing, bundled up against the cold. On his head, he had a black knit stocking cap with a Cincinnati Bengal’s patch on it.
“Headed into town?” asked the man.
“Just up the road to the Smith’s.” answered the rider. “Gotta get some eggs, and maybe a chicken for dinner.” He reined his horse down the bank to the creek for a quick drink.
“Well happy New Year, to ya.”, the man said.
“Yeah, happy New Year…” answered the rider. Then, “Heard anything on that radio of yours?
“Last night I heard that Lexington might be moving their people up to Cincinnati. Apparently, the powers that be don’t see any need to keep hangin’ on there. They have stolen about as much as they can and their supply trucks keep getting hit, making it difficult to keep fed and fueled.” The man looked down into a still pool in the water. The bright sky was reflected with many tree branches in the smooth surface.
The rider coughed and then said, “Pretty much the way they operated when they was in charge of us, ‘cept we thought it was normal that they should take our property as taxes or user fees or regulatory fines and other such nonsense. It took them generations to sell that to the public. Now they have to thieve the old fashioned way.” The rider smiled and looked up the road. “Well I better get goin’, you know how Smith loves to jabber, and I want to be back before lunch.”
“Take care” said the man.
“Yeah. See ya’.” The rider headed up the road.
The man watched for a bit as the sound of the horse trailed off to the north. He still had to check the grounds on his radio antenna, redress the terminals on his battery plant with anti-corrosion goop, and check the cistern water level. Then he would move a supply of wood indoors, so he could take off his boots and relax for the rest of the day. Maybe play a little Cribbage with the woman, listen to some radio to see what was up in other parts of the country, and open a bottle of home-made wine.
Next week he would again be helping the neighbor across the road with his cattle. He was traded beef and some silver as part of the deal. Later in the month they would make a trip to the closest store for soap, cooking oil and other supplies.
Life sure had changed in the last year, but he honestly couldn’t say it was the worst of times anymore. He had adapted and it was as if it had been this way for a long time. He had friends and family close by. They were well fed and happy. A lot better life than for those who had failed to recognize the warning signs and prepare.
He whistled at the dog and headed back toward the house. The dog ran a weaving pattern in front of him, never sure that his master wouldn’t turn, but glad to be moving and sniffing the world again.
Yes sir, life surely had changed.