After last year’s cider pressing debacle, I thought I’d never look another apple in the eye. It took me nearly two months before I was willing to touch the hard cider Paul had fermented out of the five gallons we’d received from Red on our departure from his killing fields. It turned out cold coupled with a mild stomach flu drove me back into Apple’s loving arms.
Still, with every sip I envisioned Red’s Zombie fest. Although my stomach cleared rapidly, my mind didn’t. The flavor of the cider triggered wretched memories of carnage and fear. Even plugging my nose while I drank it didn’t help. I decided to vinegarize the hard cider to which Paul had not yet laid claim in the hope that the sour scent would be enough to bypass those memories. The result was two gallons of raw cider vinegar…and not enough relief from thoee memories to make either of us want to drink it.
So last spring, I made Fire Cider. I added wild ginger, horseradish, garlic, rosemary, thyme, nettle, and a wee nip of beet root. Fire Cider ought to include really fiery herbs, like cayenne and black pepper, regular ginger root, and a bit of citrus like lemon or lime. I didn’t have those tropicals, so I improvised. Mine turned out to be more than a potent medicine. It was a bridge.
Early this fall, round about the time Red’s crazy crew were probably harvesting apples, Paul and I ran into The Trader. We’d heard tell of a fella who traveled through our parts a couple times a year trading with the settlements and killing Z’s, but we hadn’t run into anyone who actually knew him. He stuck to the highway and the funded settlements, exactly the places Paul and I generally avoided. I’d heard enough stories about settlements that were more like internment camps, taking people in but not letting them leave, putting them to work rebuilding our country’s former empire. I’d come to value my freedom, as had Paul, and we had an aversion to anyone who smacked of government, military, or money.
When Harvey led a burly fella all dressed in camouflage toting a right big gun into our camp, I was shocked. Paul reached for his machete, and I just launched into the stranger.
“Y’all aren’t welcome here,” I said.
“Yeah, get out,” Paul added. “This is our place, and we don’t fraternize with military slavers here.”
“Whoa,” he said. “I’m not here for trouble.”
“Sure,” I said. “And I’m not whistling Dixie. Get, before trouble finds you, you gun-tootin’ jerk.”
“Now wait here a minute,” the man said. He raised his hands, letting the big ole gun hang from his shoulder strap. “I’m not here to fight. I just need–”
“You don’t want a fight? Then why the hell’d you bring a gun into our camp?” Paul demanded. He advanced on the fella menacingly.
The man backed away, his hands still in the air.
“Fine, this isn’t going to work. I’m sorry. I’ll just leave,” he said. He turned and headed back from whence they’d come.
That’s when Harvey barked one sharp bark. He stepped forward and rumbled low in his throat. It shook me outta my alarm because he was looking right at me. It’s not often Harvey gives me what-for, but when he does I know I gotta re-evaluate whatever it is I’m doing. Usually, whatever it was is exactly the opposite of what’s good for me.
“Wait,” I shouted.
“What the hell are you doing?” Paul asked as I moved to follow the fella.
“I’ve gotta see what he wanted,” I said. Paul grabbed my arm and held me back.
“Are you nuts? He’s probably one of those recruiters or a bounty man or something like that,” Paul said.
“I dunno. Harvey seems to think he’s okay. I’ve gotta know what he wanted. Just let me go. I’ll shout it there’s trouble.”
“Fine, but be careful,” Paul said. He kissed me quick then let my arm go. A little chill ran through me, like it might be the last time I saw him, but I went trotting after the stranger anyway.
The man was surprisingly far into the wood beyond our clearing by the time I caught up to him.
“Hey,” I shouted to him. Harvey gave a bark. The man halted.
“What’d you want?” I asked. Harvey sat my my side, his head just under my left fingertips. I touched him and felt his confidence ease away the apprehension in my stomach.
The man looked at the pair of us. His expression was angry, but there was something else in his eyes–desperation?
“I heard you’re some kind of medicine woman,” he said. “I’ve got a sick girl, and I need help.”
“If help is what you wanted, why the hell’d you carry a gun into my camp?”
“It isn’t loaded. It’s just for show, you know, to scare off the gangs and soldiers,” he said. “I haven’t kept ammo for years. It’s too valuable.”
“Show or no show, carrying a gun into anyone’s camp is just plain stupid,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I guess I wasn’t thinking. Can you help me or not?”
“What kind of sickness? If she was bitten, I ain’t got a cure for the Virus, so you’re just plain screwed.”
“Nothing like that. It’s a cold that’s turned bad. She’s burning up. Asprin’s not working, and that’s all I’ve got,” he said.
“Where is she?”
“Back at my rig. I pulled it a way off the road up over that hill,” he said, gesturing in the direction he’d been headed when I stopped him.
“You left her near the road all alone? Aren’t you afraid she’ll be attacked by Z’s?”
“I haven’t seen many since we pulled off the Highway half a day ago,” he said. “She’ll be fine. The horses are tied up. The van’s locked tight. Even thugs can’t get in without a really good crowbar or a gun to bust the lock. Listen, if you need paying, I’ve got goods, mainly hemp goods, but the cloth’s warm. I’ve got some premium bud, too. I could probably spare a some of that.”
“We can talk about payment later. You say she’s got cold symptoms with a fever? Is she coughing? Got headaches?”
“I think it’s a sinus infection, maybe, but it could be some kind of pneumonia. She was coughing, but now she’s weak, real weak. The fever’s draining the life out of her.”
“All right, I can see what I can do, but I can’t promise you anything,” I said. Harvey got up and trotted past the man as if to lead us right to the sick girl. He stopped twenty feet or so on and looked back at me.
“Let me get my herbs,” I said. “Wait here.”
It turned out the girl had allergies and what looked like bronchitis that was wanting to turn into pneumonia. She was in bad shape. Paul and the man carried her back to our camp. She was a wisp of a girl, about as big as a 12 year-old but with the body of a young teen already filled out enough to catch the wrong kind of attention. The men settled her into a make-shift bed near the fire where she’d be about as warm as she could be.
“Jilly, I’m going with Paul here for the horses and the van,” the man said to her. “They say the van’s not far enough from the road to be safe. I’ll check on you when I get back.”
“Okay, I’ll be fine here with C.,” she whispered. Her voice was faint and hoarse. “Just keep Snowdrift and Sasha away from the undead.”
The man chuckled, squeezed her tiny hand in his, then headed back for the van with Paul.
When they were gone, I put the kettle on to boil and began digging through my pack for the herbs I needed: Fever herbs plus horehound, mullen, sage and coltsfoot.
“Thank you for helping us,” the girl said. Her long, blonde hair had the stringy, damp, dull look of one who’s been ill for quite awhile. “The Trader doesn’t ask for help, ever. I guess this is serious.”
“Don’t you worry, honey,” I told her as I began measuring herbs into my tea-steeping jar. “We’ll put you right in no time. The meadowsweet, willow bark, and yarrow here will ease the pain and help bring that fever down. After that, the rest’ll clear this out of your system.”
Jill turned out to be a cooperative patient. Even the sour heat of the Fire Cider, which turned out to be the real hero in her overall recovery, didn’t phase her. As she gained strength, so did her personality. Under that sweetness a determined, strong woman was waiting to emerge.
Her companion, well, he had a hard edge when he wasn’t caring for Jill or their horses, Snowflake and Sasha. We called him the Trader, and it seemed to suit him just fine. He was a burly, dark-skinned man who looked like he probably came from Mexico except he spoke with more of a Stanford accent. They stayed with us for a couple of weeks, the Trader and his horses getting more and more itchy as time went by.
“I think we’ll be heading out,” he told Paul and I one chilly morning right around the equinox. “I need to hit the road so we can make it back south before winter hits up here.”
“Jill’s not entirely recovered yet,” I said. “She still needs rest and the Fire Cider to rebuild her system before you go exposing her to anything. She’s not yet as strong as she looks.”
“We aren’t a hospital,” Paul said. He exchanged glances with the Trader. “They’ll be safer in that van of theirs, so long as she stays inside.”
Paul was right. We hadn’t drawn many Z’s yet, but he’d decapitated two just a couple hundred yards west of camp that morning. That’s closer than they usually get. Normally, we moved about most of the day, returning to camp only for meals and sleep. Staying put is what draws the walking dead like flies to honey.
“I’ll take good care of her,” the Trader said. “These herbs of yours have done the work. She’ll be okay. I can see that. If you’ll maybe send along a bit of that Fire Cider with us, I’ll make sure she takes it.”
Harvey sidled up to the Trader and wagged as if to let me know he trusted the man to nurse Jill back to health.
“It’ll be safer for the both of them,” Paul said.
“Okay,” I said. “A shot of Fire Cider every four hours until it’s gone and plenty of rest.”
The Trader and Jill departed the next morning. I sent them off with two quarts of Fire Cider and a small bag of Three Root herb blend. They left behind a quarter pound of marijuana bud, five balls of hemp yarn, and two hemp blankets. The Trader hadn’t been kidding when he said they were laden with hemp products.
“You know,” Paul said. “The Trader was real interested in your herbal knowledge.”
“He never said much to me about it.”
“I think you scared him, actually,” Paul said. “But, he mentioned it to me several times. I reckon I could set up some kind of trade with him.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
Fire Cider had opened Jill’s bronchial tissues and eased the inflammation in her sinuses. It’d drained the mucus and cleared her respiratory tract. It rebuilt her system, giving her back her fire. The Trader, as it turns out, was well connected. Fire Cider had built my reputation with him and with others I’ll probably never meet. It may not kill virus Z all on it’s own, but Fire Cider is surely the route by which countless others will learn about my herbal allies for killing walking dead. With luck, Fire Cider has blessed you with its potent bridging and fighting power, too.
May You Be Well,
Zombie Hunter C.