Willa applied a poultice of crushed cabalage root and honey to the cut. The cabalage root was to draw out any poison that might be in the wound, and she added honey because it killed germs, and germs caused infection.
There wasn’t anything to do but wait. She tried to get comfortable beside him and plan her next move. Her dad would be back as soon as it was safe for him to move, she had no doubt. If Ezekiel was better, she would wait for him, but if he worsened over the day, she would leave him a message and take off with him.
It was about eighty miles west to Red River Falls. She’d have to stop at least once for the day. That’s not the closest town, she thought to herself. Duluth is closer. It’s probably only forty miles from here.
Her father would kill her if she took him to Duluth. She could just hear his voice. “Duluth is full of snakes and grizzlies. They just look like people. They’ll kill you for your boots.”
Ezekiel stirred, groaning. She re-wet the compress on his head and laid it back on his forehead. “Shhh, Ez. Everything’s going to be okay. I got you.” He seemed to calm back down after a few seconds. His fever seemed about the same, which was a bad sign. About an hour later, she washed the honey off, added more, and flipped the cabalage root pad over. She tossed the part that had been in contact with the wound and re-tied the bandage. The cut was less angry looking but was showing some grey flesh along the edge. Come on, Dad. I need you, she thought.
It was hot in the burrow that day. Normally, they sealed off the door and hung a blanket over the entrance, but today Willa needed some light, so she left the door to the burrow cracked just a hair. The heat in the entry way was intense, so she kept Ez back against the far wall, where some coolness remained in the earth.
She tried to sleep. She knew she had a long run ahead of her. If she was going to get Ezekiel to Duluth, she could make it in one long night. If she went to Red River Falls, she would take two. If her father was here, he’d never let her go to Duluth, but if he was there, he’d slow her down. Even if she had to carry Ezekiel the whole way by herself, it would take half of a third night. Her father just didn’t have the stamina he used to, although he wouldn’t admit it. Willa knew she was in the best shape of her life. Her feet were a little sore, but her legs were still strong. She guessed she’d run fifty miles that day.
All day long, Willa argued with herself over her course of action. Late in the afternoon, she peeled Ezekiel’s eyes back. They looked yellow. His fever broke soon after. Willa checked the wound; there were red streaks running in every direction from the cut. Blood poisoning, she thought. That answers that. I’m going without Dad.
It was about an hour until she could go; she made the decision to go to Red River Falls. Her dad could catch her at the first burrow and see if there was anything he could do. She only had enough cabalage root for one more change here, but she knew her dad left some at every burrow.
The sun was still streaming in the crack in the door when she started packing her backpack. She refilled her water skin and then added some fresh bandages and a few pieces of dried meat. She put it on backwards, so the pack was on her chest, and slung Ezekiel over her back, tying his arms and legs together so he’d stay. She threw her sheet over her head, draping it over Ezekiel, and climbed up the stairs.
The heat hit her when she shoved the door open; it was still over a hundred degrees. She affixed her smoked glass goggles and made sure all of Ez’s skin was covered. She climbed out, slid the door back in place, and picked up a stick and wrote “Ezekiel hurt. Headed to”. She paused for just a second before scratching “Duluth.” Underneath that, she drew a circle with a bowed line through the middle and an arrow pointing in the direction she would be travelling. It was a sigil she and her father had worked out long before. It was quick, easily recognizable, and informative.
South was the worst direction to run at night, and she’d never actually been to Duluth, but while the sun was up, she knew she could just keep it on her right shoulder. Once the sun was down, she’d have to work harder to ensure she was headed south.
She ran rather than think about her decision. It was made, and that was that. She maintained a punishing pace. Willa bounded from rock to rock, each step causing Ezekiel to bounce mercilessly on her back. After a few miles, she hit the gravel south of the boulder field, and she was able to lengthen her stride and set into an easy lope.
She estimated four miles an hour across the boulders and then six miles in the hour she ran across the gravel before stopping for the first time under a scrubby pine tree. She ate some venison jerky, drank some water, and tried to get some water into Ezekiel. She sat for ten minutes, stretching her legs. Just before she took off, she scratched another bow and arrow sigil pointing south. Under it she wrote “8:30pm.” She was making good time.
When Willa and Joe used to run together, he always pointed out how fast she was. She had huge feet with toes that were almost as long as her fingers. Joe said that’s why she was so fast on the rocky terrain; her toes could grip the rocks.
Ezekiel called her Bigfoot, but for Willa, it was just the way she was made. It was nice to be able to pick things up with her feet around their burrow, and her toes helped with tree climbing.
She suspected her father was at least two hours behind her, and now that she was in the flats and her legs warmed up, she’d start expanding that lead.
She’d been travelling by herself for a long time. It was almost second nature to keep track of the miles as they ticked by. She knew her paces. Her father had worked with her for years to drive the importance of knowing where she was into her brain. “When the Colcoa came, I couldn’t even drive home without my GPS,” he’d said so many times. “Now we don’t even have a paper map. You have to keep the map in your head. Getting lost out here will get you killed.”
She kept up the twelve miles per hour for another three hours, before she started seeing signs of an old city. The Colcoa hadn’t had much interest in concrete, but they did want all of the metal pipes that humans laid under most roads. They had a machine that drove along ripping up the road to get the iron water and sewer pipes up and to get the steel bars out of the concrete. Her father called those piles of concrete ‘tailings,’ the parts left behind after a mine had extracted everything useful out of the soil. The whole world was tailings.
As Willa climbed over the pile of concrete, Ezekiel stirred and moaned in her ear. She set him down and checked the wound. The red streaks were getting worse. His face was clammy, and his eyes rolled back in his head. She sat on the ground next to him, breathing hard, and tried to get some water into him. He coughed the water up but managed to get the second gulp down his throat, then took two long pulls herself. She was down to about two cups left and found herself fantasizing about the cool, crisp water in the river she’d found.
The first thing she’d done when she found it was jump in and suck down as much of the water she could hold. Then, just before she left, she drank at least two more skins’ worth. That was the first time she’d ever been underwater, because it was the first time she’d ever seen enough water in one place to cover her.
There were tracks all along the road bed, most of them heading east. Not knowing where Duluth was, she decided that most of the people would be walking towards the city this time of year and followed the tracks.
She ran along, her legs screaming at her to stop, but she ignored their protestation; she was so close to saving Ez. A cramp developed in her calf from where she’d altered her stride to keep Ezekiel from bouncing so much on her back. There wasn’t much she could do, so she ignored it as well and tried to adjust her step back to a more normal motion, shifting more of the work to her abused thigh muscles. More and more tracks added to the set she was following, confirming to Willa that she was heading in the right direction.
She passed a tree, then another. Ahead, the lane she was following entered what could only be described as a forest. Willa studied the trees to keep her mind off the pain in her body, pushing herself well past what she thought was her breaking point.
The trees were lined up like soldiers, row after row, well tended and apparently disease free. There wasn’t any scrub or brush under them or around the trunks; instead, the ground was covered in dead leaves, spread evenly throughout. Whoever was in charge of this land was doing their best to make it fertile, returning nutrients to the soil.
She saw oaks and maples mostly, with some walnuts and pecans. She had to be getting close to town. These trees were new, planted after the Colcoa wiped out the population of this area, less than ten years old.
Duluth must be rich to have this much dirt, she thought as she ran. Just a few steps later, she felt a sting in her thigh and looked down to see a feathery dart sticking in her leg. She had just enough time to swat it out before she collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
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