The tiny, grasshopper-like insects munched on the last of the plant leaves, oblivious to anything but eating. Their mating season would be arriving soon and they consumed as much as they could so that they would be fertile.
Suddenly the odor of pheromones filled the air around them. The scouts had returned and were broadcasting a message: food!
As a single unit, the creatures took wing and began to fly in the direction the scouts had indicated. The air darkened, as if a malevolent cloud had formed over the area.
"Jack, look out!"
Jack Dauderman was snapped out of his thoughts by the warning and barely managed to throw himself out of the way of the swinging piece of wooden machinery.
As he picked himself up off the ground, Kevin Johnson, the one who had shouted the warning, reached down to help him up. "Are you all right, Jack?"
Jack let his Cherokee friend pull him up from the ground. "Yeah, thanks Kevin."
Kevin reached out to catch the swinging piece of their latest ballista. They had figured out a way to build the weapon in pieces so that it would be easier to put in a watch tower, like the one here in the Cherokee town of Saluka. "Where are your thoughts, Jack? You could have been hurt badly."
"He thinkin' 'bout his chica, yeah?" came a voice from up in the tower.
Jack looked up to see the teasing grin of Carlos Martinez looking back at him. Carlos had been one of the first prisoners that the Boomers had nominated for parole and the first one to be released from that parole. His ability with construction, especially his knack of building things without nails in the metal-poor settlements, made him a natural to help set up the ballista towers in the different towns. His easy-going good humor almost made up for the way he could get on your nerves.
Jack shook his head in resignation. "He's right, Kevin. I can't seem to concentrate when I don't know what's going on. Why couldn't I be there?"
Kevin smiled. "I told you, Jack. This is a matter for the women to decide. It is the Cherokee way. Now put your mind back on the task. We need to finish the ballista before it gets dark."
Susanna Johnson fumbled with the basket she was working on, unable to concentrate on the task at hand. She was too focused on listening to the conversation in the other part of the cabin. The women there were discussing her future.
She had been overjoyed when she discovered the turkey that Jack had left by her door last evening. Well, it wasn't really a turkey; it was one of the small lizards that lived in the area. But it was the same size as a turkey, moved much as a turkey moved, and even tasted a bit like one, so everyone had just started calling it that. Jack had hunted and killed the lizard himself.
Susanna smiled at the thought of Jack hunting. Her brother had been teaching Jack how to hunt and often joked about how clumsy the man was in the woods. But he had also told her that Jack wanted to court her properly and took the lessons very seriously. She was sure that Kevin had coached Jack about leaving the gift.
As she sat and tried to work on the basket, she could hear the women talking.
"Why is his mother not here? I should be speaking with her." That was her mother speaking.
The next voice was that of Kathleen Hanrahan. "He has no mother here, Elizabeth, just as none of us from my time have any family. That's why I'm here. Jack asked me to sit in place of his mother because I now live here with your people. I consider it quite an honor to be asked."
"Can he provide for my daughter?"
The third woman in the room, Susan Fisher, answered. " Elizabeth, did he not bring a gift of meat yesterday?"
"My son says that the man is not much of a hunter."
"No, but he is trying to learn. The people of his time did not have to hunt. Animals were raised on great farms and meat was easy to buy in markets. And he has important work. He builds the weapons to protect the towns from the great lizards and other predators. Do not act like you do not know that. Your own son helped Jack kill the great lizard that threatened the village children in Schulerville."
"He is not Cherokee."
"No, he is not, but how many Cherokee men do we have? And of those who came with the Great Wind, how many are not of your clan? The simple truth is there are very few Cherokee men that your daughter may marry. And do not forget, Elizabeth, your own grandfather was a white man."
"He will want to take my daughter to live in his village, take her away from her family. It is always what the white men do."
Kathleen answered this time. " Elizabeth, that is not true. Jack explained to me that he wants to follow the Cherokee tradition. He would, of course, have to go to the other settlements to do his work, but he would live here with Susanna. Besides, I really don't think he wants to take her back to his place. Like a lot of our people, he sleeps in one of the old prison cells, hardly the place to take a new bride."
Susan again spoke. "Elizabeth, Jack does not want to change our traditions. I am sure he has traditions of his own to share, but he also wants to learn ours. But you know as well as I do that our traditions will be changing, joining with those of the people of Schulerville as well as those of the other villagers. We must become one people to survive in this new world."
Her mother didn't seem convinced. "If he is so concerned about our traditions, he should have received my permission before he brought the gift."
"He is learning, Elizabeth. Even among the Cherokee the traditions are not always followed as they once were. I believe Jack truly does want to do it the right way. You must overlook a bit of youthful impetuousness."
When the women grew quiet, Susanna risked a glance in their direction. She could see her mother was thinking.
She almost jumped when her mother spoke. "Susanna, come here."
Susanna put down the basket and quickly walked over to her mother, barely able to breath because of her nerves.
Her mother pulled a chair next to her. "Sit with me."
When Susanna sat down, her mother took Susanna's hands in her own and smiled. "Susanna, if you wish to marry this man, I give you my blessing and will not stand in your way."
Susanna was so happy it felt as if her heart was going to burst out of her chest. She wrapped her arms around her mother in a tight hug. "Oh, thank you, Mother, thank you!"
Elizabeth chuckled and patted her on the back. "Forgive me, Susanna, for giving you doubts. I only wanted to be sure he was a good man."
"He is, Mother. He is!"
Elizabeth pushed her away and held her at arms length. "Now go. You have some cooking to do."
Three Wolves huddled with his family in their small hut as the sound of insects filled the air. Time and again one of the small creatures would slip inside through a crack and he had crushed each of them.
The small boy curled tighter into his protective grasp. "Papa, I'm frightened."
He pulled the boy in closer. "I know Little Turtle, but do not worry. I will protect you."
He saw the worried look in his wife's eyes and he knew she could tell he lied. He really didn't know what would happen.
The cloud of insects had descended only a short time ago and everyone in the village had fled into their huts. Three Wolves had heard stories before the Great Wind of lands far in the direction of the setting sun. In those stories, clouds of insects had come in to devour all the plants and people had gone hungry.
He didn't know what his village would do. How did one fight insects without number?
Jack held the pieces steady as Carlos used a mallet to pound in the dowel that would secure the mortise and tenon joint on the ballista. When the end of the dowel was flush with the surrounding wood, he shook and twisted the connection to make sure it was secure.
He leaned back to look at the completed weapon. "Carlos, I think that's it. Congratulations, you just completed your first assembly of the Mark III Ballista."
The Mexican's face lit up in satisfaction. "Can we fire it now?"
Jack smiled. "Not yet, we need to double-check all the joints to make sure they're secure and then we need to wind up the springs. Only after all that's done can we fire it."
Carlos nodded and bent to examine all the joints of the weapon.
Just then Kevin appeared at the top of the ladder and placed the wooden spears he had been carrying onto the floor of the tower. "Is it almost ready?"
"Almost, Carlos is checking all the joints now. All we have left is to wind it up."
Kevin's response was interrupted by a voice from below. "Hello in the tower."
Jack looked over the edge of the tower floor and saw Chief Geoffrey Watkins below. "Hello, Geoffrey. What can we do for you?"
"How is the construction going?"
"We've finished assembling the ballista. We're just double-checking it now. All that's left is to wind the springs and it will be ready to fire."
"Good, you should stop for today. There will be plenty of time to finish that tomorrow."
"It really won't take long."
Geoffrey smiled broadly. "That may be, Jack, but you have another appointment. You need to be ready."
Jack was confused. "What other appointment? All I had planned for today was to work on the ballista."
"You might want to go to this one, Jack. Someone is fixing your meal this evening."
Jack's was still confused until he looked at Kevin.
His friend was smiling knowingly. "Susanna is preparing a meal from your gift, Jack. My mother has agreed to your marriage."
Rebecca Calhoun carefully picked the small insect from the corn stalk, threw it to the ground and crushed it beneath her heel.
That was the fourth of the grasshopper-like creatures she had found today. They seemed to be appearing in the field more frequently. Susan Fisher would have to be told.
Jack was so nervous he almost turned around and ran, but he steeled his nerves and knocked on the door of the cabin.
A small Cherokee woman answered the door and looked at Jack with suspicion. "Yes?"
Jack took a deep breath. "Mrs. Johnson, my name is Jack Dauderman. I have brought a gift for your daughter."
When Jack held out the sack, the woman took it and looked inside. The sack contained the big pine nuts that the Cherokee were grinding into nut meal.