Summer of 1634
"All right everyone, hold real still!" The small group of third graders froze, looks of excitement on their faces. What great kids! There was movement in the tall reeds along the edges of the narrow inlet; once a West Virginia hollow, now an arm of a tree lined lake formed by a Thuringian stream colliding with a Ring of Fire hillside appearing in its path. It was harder to see 'the rim' of the ring these days, time had meshed and melded the North American and European ecologies along its border. From out of the native water grass that had found a home in the formerly West Virginian soil appeared a mother duck and ten brown downed ducklings, much to everyone's delight.
"That's a 'Wood Duck'!" Pam told the gathered students of the summer nature program she was putting on in conjunction with the middle school. "It's one of the species that came through the Ring of Fire. This new lake has created a perfect habitat for it. I'll bet her nest is in those pine trees over there." Pam pointed to the pines that lined the lake's edge in what had once been a Thuringian stream valley. The ghostly silver tops of less fortunate trees below them poked out of the surface along the wooded shore; they had drowned when the lake formed but their protruding upper branches and sunken trunks provided excellent homes for fish and water insects as well as protective cover for shorebirds. Pam's practiced eyes found a European kingfisher perched on a dead branch waiting for a fat minnow to target. The kingfishers were shy but maybe the kids would be able to get a glimpse later if they stayed quiet—right now there were ducklings in front of them. There was no point in trying to drag their attention away just yet; baby ducks are a hard act to follow!
"The male of this species was considered to be one of up-time America's most beautiful birds. There are no other ducks like it in Europe, fossil studies told us that it originated in North America and its closest relative is the Mandarin duck of China. I'm really glad they came along with us. If we're lucky we will see this group's poppa before we end the day." The kids oohed and aahed appreciatively. Their accompanying schoolteacher asked the kids to open their sketch books to record their sighting as the family of wood ducks paddled around in the nearby shallows. Pam wandered over to where Gerbald stood careful watch farther up the hollow's steep side. Despite his usual impassive expression Pam could see wrinkles of pleasure had formed around his bright blue eyes. Gerbald was such a softy under that stony exterior, the retired soldier was immensely enjoying playing bodyguard for the children.
The summer nature program was proving to be a resounding success; everyone involved was having a lot of fun, even stoic Gerbald. Pam felt proud of the program that had been her brainchild. Her interest in birds had grown to include the entire ecology that they were a part of, she had spent long hours in the National Library devouring all the material she could find; she was a well trained researcher and had rapidly absorbed a vast amount of information. She was also making progress on her pet project, writing and illustrating her Birds of the USE -A Field Guide. It was fun to think that she would be the default 'John J Audubon' of this universe, something that would have been impossible to imagine in her old life. She smiled up into the blue skies of seventeenth-century Germany, a place that was finally feeling like home.
The next day, Pam and Gerbald led a group of lively sixth graders up the now well worn trail to the lake. She enjoyed their cheerful banter as they lollygagged along, even though the noise was probably scaring off all the birds within a mile radius. Pam marveled at the adaptability of children, the mixed group of up-time and down-time Americans were yakking away in an untidy mishmash of English and German. Pam's German had progressed to where she could catch most it but apparently an arcane slang vocabulary was already developing, indecipherable to the hopelessly un-hip ears of an adult.
As she walked through the sun dappled woods listening to the babble around her, Pam reminisced on a long ago dinner party at the home of a work colleague from Morgantown who had spent many years working in Japan and had returned with a Japanese wife. At the table the two of them spoke in perfectly normal English. Of course, his very charming wife barely had an accent; but, when they were alone together in the kitchen bringing out more wine or another course, Pam overheard them both switch to a nearly incomprehensible mix of their respective languages. " Atsui yo, use the oven mitts, neh!" Pam didn't want to embarrass them, but couldn't help but ask them about it; her hosts just laughed. "Forgive our 'Japan-glish', we can't help it!" They explained that some words just "sounded better" in one or the other languages and so when trying to get an idea across they chose freely from both vocabularies. Listening to her junior birdwatchers Pam was sure she was hearing the sound of the future of their hybrid nation. Up-time Americans were going to have to get bilingual fast or they wouldn't be able to understand what their own kids were talking about!
Pam shushed the exuberant group as they arrived at the inlet. "All right everyone, it's time to be quiet and see which birds are here with us today. Yesterday there was a mother wood duck with her ducklings and they were darn cute!" The kids quieted down more quickly than she would expect. An excellent German influence on our up-time kids—when it's time to be quiet they do it, no argument! Pam was not one who flinched at applying some strictness in a child's upbringing, and rather admired the Germans for their expertise on the subject. She hoped her own Walt didn't resent her too much and she was awfully proud of how he had turned out. I wasn't the easiest mother to have, I know . . . I liked things my way and was damned picky! But maybe the discipline I taught him is making things easier for him as a young adult in this age. I hope so, anyway.
The kid's school teacher at Fluharty Middle School, Stacey Antoni, a very pleasant lady who had lost a husband to the Ring of Fire, had gathered them by the shore in a semblance of order, ready for Pam to get started. Gerbald had taken his usual watchful place on the hill side, their safety was in good hands. Pam began her introduction.
"This lake is an excellent example of the adaptation and mixture between North American and European ecologies along the Ring of Fire's rim. These reeds are a native German species that find they like the richness of West Virginia's soil much to their liking. The reeds are providing excellent habitat for a North American duck species, the wood duck, which we will hopefully—" Pam stopped her lecture when she noticed she had completely lost the attention of several schoolgirls nearest the water's edge.
"Oh, look! The liebchen, they are so cute!"
Baby ducks. Pam smiled ruefully. There is no competing with baby ducks.
"—see today. Well everyone, it appears that we have met our American ducks. The mother wood duck has grown accustomed to our visits and is no longer very shy. They like to stay in shallow water where they can find a lot of small insects to eat—"
"Ms. Miller!" A sweetly gawky-looking boy whose weight hadn't caught up with his latest growth spurt interrupted her. "Ms. Miller, where is the mother duck?"
Pam stepped closer to the still waters. The ducklings were huddled together beside a clump of marsh grass. They were strangely quiet and weren't engaged in their usual search for food. Pam scanned the shore for the wood duck hen; she was nowhere to be seen.
"That's odd." Pam looked back at the silent ducklings. There were only eight of them—the day before there had been ten.
Pam saw Gerbald, who seemed to possess an uncanny sixth sense when it came to trouble, was already coming down the hillside toward the group; a flash of blue as well trained eyes scanned the terrain from the shade of his monstrous hat's floppy brim.
Pam turned back to her group of students. "Well kids, it is a bit unusual for a mother duck to leave her babies unattended, but not unheard of. She may just be out looking for food and thought they would be safe here. Now is a good chance for you to get out your sketchbooks and get a picture drawn of them while they are sitting still." Pam flashed a quick concerned look to their teacher who returned a subtle nod. Message received, good teachers have an instinct for trouble. The teacher quickly went about getting the notebooks deployed and the students distracted with work. Pam walked casually but quickly to Gerbald who had moved quietly along the shore toward the inlet's mouth, his gaze alternating between the muddy ground and the vicinity.
"Gerbald, the mother duck and some of her ducklings are missing. I have a bad feeling about it . . . . Maybe a fox?"
"Pam, I am looking for tracks. If they are here I will find." They didn't discuss the subject much but Pam knew that Gerbald had extensive hunting experience. As a former professional soldier there was no doubt a good many of his meals had come from the region's many forests. Gerbald was a very savvy woodsman. Born and raised in West Virginia, Pam was no stranger to the hunter's art. She had even brought down a buck herself on a hunting trip with her uncles and cousins back in her teens. She hadn't burst into tears as so many do, she had established too tough an exterior for that, especially in front of her boy cousins; but she hadn't relished the experience one bit either, and felt some regret at the sight of the death she had made. She accepted her family's praise, ate the venison, enjoyed the taste; but once was enough. Hunting was all right and a fact of life—within reason.
"Not . . . a fox." Gerbald said quietly as he peered into the rushes. Gently he extracted a duck's pinion feather from a clump of stalks; her heart sinking Pam saw that it was a female wood duck's. Gerbald used it to point at the damp ground.
"There—a boot print in the mud. There—more feathers. The bird, it struggled. Here—this is where they tied the snare; you see the marks." Pam nodded solemnly at the dead branch, some of the rotting bark had peeled away when the twine was untied. She felt a great surge of emotion building in her, a potent mix of grief and rage. No time for it, she could get upset later but not now, not in front of the kids.
"Which way did they go, Gerbald?" Her voice was even and hard as an iron rail.
"Up the hill, but the tracks are not clear. I am not sure how many, maybe two or more. This was only some hours ago." Pam peered up at the steep formerly West Virginian hill, into the shadows beneath sugar maples, beech and yellow birch trees. She nodded slowly.
"All right. They're for later." Squaring her shoulders Pam marched back to the young teenagers. They stopped their talk, sensing that something was wrong from her face's stony set.
Mrs. Antoni looked very worried. "Pam? Is everything okay?"
"No, I'm afraid its not." Pam considered for a moment softening the story but decided against it. They're old enough, they should be told. "The mother wood duck is dead. She has been killed by hunters. Human hunters." A distressed murmur went through the group. Pam looked at the huddled mass of ducklings in the shallows. There was no escaping what came next, as much as she hated to remove a wild thing from its habitat she had no choice. It was unlikely that the two missing ducklings were taken by the hunters, they had probably fallen victim to a crow or some other opportunist—a baby duck alone would make an easy snack for a variety of creatures.
"What we have here now is an endangered species. These may be the only transplanted wood ducks in the whole Ring of Fire. I'd like very much to save them and I need your help."
A murmur of excitement went through the group—"Of course we will help!" It was unanimous. Pam smiled a little at their youthful good will. These are good kids. I'm glad I am here, doing these things. Pam rarely thought of her life before the Ring of Fire anymore. After her divorce she had disappeared into a glass bottle world comprised of her tiny house and secluded back garden. Seeing herself standing in front of a bunch of people, even if they were mostly kids, and being the one in charge, the one who knew what to do—she never would have expected this . . . or how much she liked it.
"All right. Here is the plan. Now that they have no mother we need to catch them and take care of them until they are older. Boys, I'd like to ask you to take off your shirts and give them to the girls." This couldn't help but produce a few giggles. Pam had to have a chuckle herself, despite the tragic nature of the situation. "Well, we aren't going to do it the other way!" Everyone snickered now and Mrs. Antoni gave her an alarmed look. "Girls, you are going to be the catchers, I think you'll be gentler than the boys, ja?" One of the girls in the group, and it sounded like a down-timer accent, muttered "Duh!" Yes, we are also having a marvelous influence on this century's youth!
"You boys are going to roll up your pant legs and wade out into the lake from over there." She pointed a few meters down the shoreline toward the main lake where they wouldn't disturb the ducklings too soon. "Be careful, it drops off pretty sharp about six yards out. I want you to slowly make a half-circle around the ducklings so they can't swim away in any direction—if they try to go past you I need you to grab them with your hands! They are very fragile so you must be careful; it's easy to injure them.
"Girls, you are going to make the other half of the circle along the shore. Crouch low and have the boy's shirts ready. When I give the signal the boys are going to start making noise and will move towards the shore. That's going to drive the ducklings up onto the grass where you can drop the shirts over them. Once you have a duckling caught under your shirt hold it there and I'll come get it to put in my bag here." Pam quickly emptied the contents of her rucksack onto the ground, she could fit most of it in her coat pockets for the trip back, and it would make a nice safe container for their fuzzy little captives. "Does everyone understand? Stacey and Gerbald, you stay back a ways—if the girls miss any then it's up to you to grab them." The teacher gave her a determined nod and Gerbald had developed an exceedingly wry smile.
"Yes, ma'am," he drawled in his best West Virginian; obviously he had been practicing.
Marshaling her troops in a loud stage whisper Pam directed the boys out into the water. Good Lord, I hope no one drowns on my watch! They moved surprisingly quietly, lanky young teen herons stalking through the reeds. The cluster of ducklings had begun to peep softly, looking around nervously, their instincts told them something was up. Pam got the girls crouched in their circle, shirts spread wide between their hands, ready to make the catch. 'Operation Duck-lift' is a go! The excitement of the rescue operation had lifted Pam's spirits quite a bit. She might as well enjoy the fun now and ask questions later about why this had happened and what she was going to do about it.
"Boys—move in! Slowly!" The waders had formed a wide ring and now carefully closed it. Soon they were all within an arm's reach of each other. Ready . . . steady . . .
"Do it!" The boys began to move rapidly into shore whooping merrily. As hoped for the ducklings lost their nerve and broke from cover; they made a plaintive peeping plunge for the grassy shore. Perfect! "Here they come, girls!" To their credit the girls remained calm and quiet, waiting for the madly fleeing ducklings to get within reach—and down went the shirts! Six of the girls had a duckling thrashing about under cotton T's and homespun linen shirts, which were now being cut in up-time style as was, not too surprisingly, the burgeoning fashion amongst Grantville's kids. Pam, distracted by the action almost missed the duckling that ran between Mrs. Antoni's legs and was headed straight for her. Plop! Down went Pam's rucksack over it.
One more had broken the shirt line and was weaving madly toward the hillside. Gerbald, with a delicate flick of the wrist, tossed his ridiculous floppy hat on it. He rarely took the misshapen thing off, only when his wife Dore threatened to render grievous harm at the dinner table, so Pam considered it a generous gesture of solidarity on her bodyguard's part. Figuring that Gerbald could suffer the dread German summer sun on his head for a few minutes, Pam scooped her own catch deeper into the rucksack. She then proceeded to gently pry struggling ducklings out from under the shirts. Soon she had six loudly protesting balls of fuzz. When she retrieved the one under Gerbald's hat they exchanged a quick grin. Yeah, that was fun! The students were laughing and hooting now as the boys tried to regain their shirts from the girls, who were engaged in a merry game of keep-away with the bare shouldered boys. Mrs. Antoni just shook her head and let them have at it. She walked over to Pam and Gerbald. Pam smiled warmly at her.
"Thanks for letting me use the kids as a wildlife rescue team, Stacey."
"No problem, it was good for them. At first the Grantville kids and the new kids were really shy with each other, it was to be expected. But now I'm at the point where I forget which is which—they're all just kids now, American kids. They have really become a tight knit group."
"Can you understand that mixed up slang of theirs?"
"Good heavens no, I never expected that! In class they must communicate correctly in one language or the other depending on what's required for the lesson. Out of class there is no stopping them, and the funny thing is I catch myself doing it sometimes, too!" They all shared a chuckle. Pam was shortly reminded of her responsibility by the gently squirming weight of her rucksack.
"We need to round these guys up and head back for Grantville pronto. I've got to get these ducklings out of this bag and into temporary quarters." Mrs. Antoni proceeded to bark orders and within a relatively short time blushing boys were reunited with their grass-stained shirts and the students were assembled. Pam gave them a brief thank you speech congratulating them on their helpfulness after which they began the trip back to town brimming with pride and tuckered out from all the hullabaloo.