They continued to head south. To the east lay the coast which was controlled by the Ocean Fisheries who
Of course Trax did not believe everything he heard. The old man would tell impossible stories of the old world, of how things used to be; of fresh air and clean water, gardens of fresh fruit and vegetables in your own back yard and other things that seemed just as impossible here in the new world.
This line of thought reminded Trax of a bit of poetry that had been taught to him as a child to help him sleep at night. Later Allenby had told him the line was written by an old world poet named Thomas Stearns Eliot. He had been an American poet when there had been an America. The line ran:
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Trax had once heard an ancient legend that the world had come into being with a big bang, and some believed it would end the same way. Nuclear power was quite common in the old world and it seemed that every nation, none of whom seemed worthy of it, had the power to destroy the world a dozen times over with the touch of a button. Ironically, the world did not end with a bang. No one pushed the button- mores the pity. Perhaps it wold have been better if they had and turned the earth to dust. As it was, the world ended with a whimper- it literally cried.
The end began with seven straight months of rain. It was as if the world was weeping. Global warming melted snow-capped mountain peaks and mammoth glaciers. Engorged lakes and rivers overflowed and new ones cut jagged paths, ripping away rich fertile soil. Low lying areas were drowned under water. Ocean levels rose up, washing away shores and flooding coastal cities and towns. The rains brought down lethal doses of sulphuric acids, killing lakes and rivers and what wildlife existed in them. The rains were broken by six years of drought brought on by the high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which furthered global warming.
The once protective ozone became like an old worn curtain; thin and faded with ever increasing holes. Ultraviolet radiation bombarded the earth and led to new and severe forms of skin cancer that took the lives of millions of human beings, not to mention plant and animal life. Untreated human sewage contaminated drinking water and led to a world-wide outbreak of malaria.
Thus ended the old world. Governments collapsed, order fled, and chaos ruled.
In North America, panic took over and the population broke into regional governments, each controlling vital and dwindling resources.
Weather became totally unpredictable with stifling heat one day and freezing cold temperatures a week later. The prairies, once the major supplier of the world's grain, dried up entirely into a wasteland dividing the continent from east to west. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides were the major contributing factors to the prairie's soil degradation which left the land useless, turning it into a desert. Fossil fuels became practically extinct. Electricity was produced in only a few isolated spots and was difficult to distribute.
The air, earth and water seemed to loose their scientific properties. Fire would still burn, but not as brightly in the contaminated atmosphere where the oxygen content was slowly diminishing. Plant life declined and crops had to be cultivated carefully. Harvests were not assured. New blights developed each year with no one there to combat them. Wildlife died off or became mutated, many species became extinct. It was as if the earth had suffered enough abuse and decided to rebel. Trax rose from his bedroll. He looked east to see the sun rise like a huge copper ball that never shone brightly but emanated stifling heat. Trax looked westward.
Riscofftison sat up. "West today?" he said, reading Trax's thoughts.
Trax nodded. "Today we head west."
Riscofftison did not bother to ask the younger man why west, nor did Trax provide an explanation. As though directed by some unknown force, they moved on almost instinctually, like the migratory birds of the old world.
They rode on the outer fringe of the Farm Co-op. This far south, they were far enough from the central farm agencies and the armed patrols to avoid any encounters. They did pass smaller farm communes that lined the border region, however. These communes paid their tithes to the agency but were left relatively unsupervised. They were allowed to govern themselves as long as it did not interfere with the Co-op's quota output.
Trax had run across these communes once or twice in his work. They were simple people, concerned only with their fields and crops. A superstitious bunch but relatively harmless.
As the buckboard pulled into one such commune, the sun was sliding down in the west and it threw strange, unnatural colours fan-like across the hazy sky.
The settlement was built around a public square. Frame houses, shops and tall, spacious barns hemmed it in. Corn cribs and silos stood in neat rows.
Trax pulled into the square, stopped a passer-by and asked if there was a place they could be put up for the night.
Strangers were not allowed into homes, the man told them, but they could find a bed of straw in the stable.
Riscofftison smiled wrily remembering an old fable.
"Lucky you two just happened by," the farmer told them. He was dressed plainly in denim coveralls, rubber boots and a straw hat. His mouth played with a piece of long grass that bobbed up and down and back and forth as he spoke. "You're in for some fun tonight if'n you plan to stay. You're welcome to partake if'n you a mind to."
"What is it?" Trax asked.
"You'll see. You'll see," the farmer said, grinning foolishly then loped off.
They found the stable, unhitched the horse, cared for it first then saw to their own needs.
The sun disappeared, allowing the darkness to come out of hiding. Starlight fought to shine through dust particles that hung perpetually in the air.
The inhabitants of the commune began to congregate in the square- lanky and dour looking farmers, their women with drawn and haggard faces, children of all ages with dirty faces and no shoes on their feet.
They were a pathetic looking lot, Trax thought. Dirt farmers who were tied to the soil they tilled by some strange time-honoured tradition. They even looked like they were born of the dirt, gritty and dry and barely able to support life. They breathed dirt, it was in their lungs, in their blood. Some even ate the soil to be more part of it. 'The soil is the life' they believed, and they guarded its secrets selfishly.
Communes such as these would allow strangers to stay a night, or two, but they would be asked to move on. If they did not they could expect to be run off by a mob armed with pitchforks, clubs or any farm tool that could be hefted.
Trax and Riscofftison wandered out of the stable and into the square where lit torches blazed hungrily and cast strange and unearthly shadows. A wooden pole stood in the middle of the square sticking two meters out of the ground. Children passed the pole and placed pieces of wood at the base of it- a branch, a small stick, bigger tree limbs they could not lift but managed to drag.
Now the square was full and they all stood around as if expecting something exciting. Trax became aware of the anticipation rising in the crowd as they gathered around a raised platform that stood off to the side. The crowd hushed reverently as a woman ascended the platform. Trax had to look twice to confirm her gender.
She was dressed in a wide, dark skirt long enough to cover the tops of her heavy boots. She wore a short grey jacket left unbuttoned over a plain work shirt. A dark brown bonnet sat untied on her head and the hair that lay beneath that bonnet was streaked with silver, as was the small tuft of beard growing out of her chin. She appeared stern and sober made more so by the numerous lines that crisscrossed her face. The woman carried herself with a distinction that told Trax that she was the matriarch of the commune. As such, she made the decisions of what and where to plant the crops, who would marry whom and when, but most importantly, she was the spiritual consciousness of the commune. A corn cob pipe was clamped between her teeth. As she spoke, her voice resonated with a deep raspy drawl that commanded everyone's attention.
"Neighbours, we are gathered here because there is among us a stranger!"
Riscofftison made a sudden motion, like he was about to bolt. Only Trax's steel-like grip on his arm kept him from running.
"A stranger who would destroy us!"
Riscofftison turned worriedly to Trax who looked on with stone cold indifference.
"This stranger came amongst us hurt and broken, one step from death's door. And we took this person into our bosom, tending 'em and making 'em well. We went against an age old rule and treated 'em like our own. We did. We took pity on this person. And how did this stranger repay us? With treachery, deceit and murder! The stranger is evil incarnate and will prove our ruination! A witch! A devil! A beast! Shall we let this evil live to destroy us!?"
The crowd, clearly incensed over the old woman's words, answered in unison. "No!"
"We must destroy this evil!" the woman continued. "Or it will destroy us!"
"Destroy it! Destroy it!" A woman in the crowd screamed out maniacally.
The old matriarch clamped the corn cob pipe in her mouth and paused dramatically. She fixed her gaze on the crowd. None wished the steely eyes to rest on them for very long.
"Only after the evil is destroyed will the rains fall again, will the soil become fertile again.
"When our fields are plagued, how do we cleanse them?"
The crowd stood dumb and open mouthed to her question.
"We burn them!" she announced with finality.
"Burn! Burn! Burn! Burn!" The crowd began to chant. She allowed them go on for a while then quieted them with a raise of her arms.
"We burn out the evil!" she said. "Only that way can we make a clean start. Scorched earth cleanses all!"
While the crowd took up the chant anew, the old woman called for the prisoner.
Burn! Burn! Burn! Burn! Burn!
Out of a building two men brought out a young woman, each of them holding an arm. She did not struggle or attempt to escape but still they kept a firm grip upon her. They walked her up onto the platform for all to see.
Trax watched carefully. The young woman was of medium height and dressed in a colourful peasant dress. Her long dark hair hung wild and loose about her shoulders. The hair made her look the part, Trax thought. The girl's clean olive coloured skin, large dark eyes, and full lips bespoke an Hispanic heritage. Even in the torchlight her natural beauty and grace were evident, but Trax thought nothing of this. He was instantly drawn to her face and through the distance that separated them their eyes met, claiming recognition. Trax whirled his head to Riscofftison, who also stared at the girl, a dawning look of kinship plainly evident. Riscofftison faced Trax with the same look of wonder writ across his face.
"Here is the witch, the demon!" the old woman cried. "We must purge ourselves of this evil! Fire will wash the soil clean again! And how must we do this?"
"BURN HER!!" the mob shouted.
Trax had little experience with frontier farmers but he did know that these people could turn into a mad mob, resolute in any crazy decision they settled on. There must have been over sixty men, women and children in the square. The odds were too great, even for Trax. He often pushed his luck beyond reason but he never blatantly defied the odds. Yet...
Second Coming is now available on Kindle!