It was raining. Daphne Pridmore was getting thoroughly sick of the rain. It meant that she had to stay inside for the most part. Going out to check on the hives was pointless. If they could use the truck, it might be worthwhile, but they'd decided to save the wear and tear on their only truck for emergencies. As much as she hated to admit it, cabin fever wasn't a real emergency. If she really wanted to go out, it would mean getting the horses hitched to the wagon. And driving the team in the rain. And dealing with very agitated bees, who would be less than amused at the stupid human who wanted to bother them when they were all snug in their hives. Even the bees knew when to stay inside.
Noises occasionally filtered up from the basement. Ikey, her husband, was no doubt puttering down there with one of his many projects. Everybody else was gone for the day. The kids were at school, both hers and those of the families living with them. If the rain didn't let up between now and the time they got out of school, the kids would end up going to her brother-in-law's house for the night. She missed having Zeke and Evie living with them, but it was nice to have a place closer to town for the kids to stop in at. Several of their down-time boarders were out on a route collecting honey in the caravan and wouldn't be back for a few more days. The caravans had been built with exactly this kind of situation in mind. The large wagons held all the comforts of home and enough supplies for a couple of weeks. The seventeenth-century version of an RV. She listened to the rumbling thunder and hoped they were all okay.
She wandered around the house looking for something to do. Eventually she ended up in one of the smaller upstairs bedrooms. At one time it had been Ikey's grandmother's sewing room. Now it was the repository for all of the oddball projects that they had worked on over the years. There were scraps of leather in various states of being tooled or made into different items. Boxes of fabric were bulging out of the closet, often spilling their multihued contents over the ones below. A lone spinning wheel sat abandoned in the corner, covered with dust and strewn with pairs of hand-dipped candles. In short, it looked like a craft store had been caught in a tornado and then had all of its contents dumped in the tiny room. Daphne spotted one of their project books peeking out from under a macramé plant hanger. She picked it up and thumbed through it. It listed all of the things on their "To Do" list, month by month. This one was from a year before the Ring of Fire. She smiled as she read it to herself. So much had changed.
1. Clean fireplace
2. Clean out car
3. Finish spring quilt
4. Go shopping for groceries
5. Drop Mariah with Grandma Mamie and have movie night . . .
The more she read, the more homesick she became. Here was her life, written down on paper. The week by week retelling of what had been an ordinary life in a small town. She thumbed a few pages ahead. It was the same. Some of the items were different, but there was so much that they couldn't do now. Tears welled up in her eyes as she went through page after page of what they had considered important enough to write down at the time. So much of it was meaningless to her daily life now. How could she worry about getting oil for her car when there was no gas to run it? Or go to a Renaissance Faire, when they were living in a time that was scant decades from when Shakespeare wrote his plays? The tears started rolling down her cheeks as she went through May, June, July . . .
A small note in the end of July caught her attention. It was scrawled in Ikey's handwriting "Check on peppers, add salt if needed." It took her a moment to figure out what he was writing about. Then it hit her. That was the summer they had grown so many peppers that they didn't know what to do with them all. They had found an article talking about Tabasco sauce, and decided that it would be fun to try. They had filled up one of Ikey's wooden five gallon barrels with the pepper and salt mixture. Then they had put it away to ferment. It was right before Ikey's dad had been in a car accident. Daphne quickly flipped through the remaining pages. There was no mention of them bottling the sauce. Nor could she remember ever finishing them. That meant they might still be around someplace, assuming that Ikey hadn't thrown them out.
It had been over a year since the last of their Tabasco had run out. Many of their other up-time spices were gone as well. There were many other things that they could get down-time. Herbs were the easiest, either from their garden, the local markets, or trading with another up-timer who was growing something they didn't already have. Even bay leaves and several kinds of ginger could be found if you knew where to look or who to ask. Salt was easy to find as well. And there were many new things that she would have never considered as spices, like juniper berries and rue. But when it came to adding heat and flavor to dishes, they were severely limited. Curry powder was unheard of. Black pepper could be found, at exorbitant prices. True, they had plenty of chili peppers, but every time she had used them when it was her turn to cook, the down-timers complained about the food being too hot. She put them on her own food, but for the most part they added more heat than flavor. The mere thought of Tabasco sauce was enough to make her mouth water. She tossed the book back on the corner of the table and headed for the basement. If the peppers were still around, Ikey would know where they were. He had barrels of stuff stashed all over the place from brewing and was notorious for not putting labels on anything, so the only way to track them down was to go find him. She wiped away the tears and hurried off. She was a woman on a mission. Her day was looking up.
Locating Ikey wasn't an overly difficult task. One simply had to go down the stairs and follow the sound of banging. That usually meant he was at his workbench tinkering with one of his gun projects from the store. This time was no different. He had his back to the door, and was prying on something with a large wrench. Daphne paused for a moment to consider the best way to approach him.
"Honey, dearest, snookums?" she asked sweetly.
"Uh-oh." He turned cautiously. "What am I going to be doing for you this time?"
"Oh, nothing major, dear. I just need you to help me find something."
"Uh huh," he said noncommittally. Daphne knew he was trying to figure out the best way to escape from the basement. Fortunately, she was between him and the stairs. And there was no way for him to make a dash for the storm doors without being incredibly obvious. There was no helping it, he was well and truly trapped. "Ummm . . . What do you need me to find?"
"Do you remember the barrel of peppers we were going to make hot sauce out of a few years ago?" When he nodded, she continued. "Do you have any idea where that might be?"
The relief on his face was almost comical. "No problem. It's up the hill at the old house. I think I put it in the basement next to some mead and cysers. Why?"
"We are completely out of Tabasco sauce. I figure I have time today, and it's probably ready by now. I wanted to finish it up. Could you go up and get it for me?"
"But it's still raining."
"I know, but the golf cart has a roof. And it won't take you that long, will it?" she asked innocently.
"Aww crap. I guess I'm running up to the old house, huh?"
"You don't have to, dear . . . I could do it by myself." She smiled. "If you don't feel up to it."
He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, like I'm going to fall for that one."
"How do I get myself into these situations?" Ikey said to himself as he drove up the hill through the pelting rain. True, the cart had a fabric roof. But when the rain was coming in almost horizontally, that didn't help much. The ancient golf cart worked its way up the muddy track that led to the small modular home at the top of the hill. It had been Ikey and Daphne's house, a gift from his family shortly after their wedding. It had a barn and a small corral for their livestock, now moved down the hill to his grandparents' farm. Weeds grew in the front yard, and the whole place had an abandoned air to it. One day soon they would have to come up here and clean all of their stuff out. There was no point in keeping it vacant. With as tight as housing was in Grantville, there were bound to be people willing to live there despite its relatively remote location. But that would be a project for a later day. Preferably one that was a bit drier. In the meantime, he had a job to do. He pushed the button on the garage door opener and pulled in out of the rain.
Finding the barrel he was looking for only took a few minutes. Getting it out of the stack was another matter entirely. It was buried under several years worth of brewing projects. Forty-five minutes later he had the barrel of peppers free and several dozen other barrels and demijohns sorted into several groups. The "Finished" stack was the largest, followed by the "Still Aging" stack, the "I-don't-know-what-it-is" stack, and finally the "Oh-my-god-I-think-it's-evolving" stack. He would definitely have to wander back up here soon to finish sorting it all out. And possibly come armed, judging by the looks of some of the murkier mystery containers. He loaded up the peppers and two other barrels, and locked up. No point in leaving that much alcohol lying around unattended. Or possibly unleashing some fermented creature loose on the unsuspecting countryside. There was a lull in the rain, so the trip back down the hill was both uneventful and drier. But only slightly.
Daphne smiled at her drenched, muddy husband. "I was beginning to think we needed to send out a rescue party."
"No, no, dear, I'm fine. I was just going through what's still up there. You'd be amazed. I brought down a few other things I thought we might enjoy," he said, while standing in the entryway dripping.
"Oh, I don't know . . . I found that pear mead we made a few years back. And some mulling spices. I figured some hot spiced mead might help you warm up after you finished drying off."
Daphne looked at her husband quizzically. "Drying off? You're the only one who's soaked."
"Not for long!" He lunged at her. She squealed and tried to jump out of his reach, to no avail. He caught her up in a bear hug. Shaking his head like a dog drying off, he sent water and mud flying everywhere. In a matter of moments, she was nearly as wet as he was.
"Brat!" She swatted him as she broke free. "Look at this." She spread her arms to display her now dampened clothing. "I just washed all of this, and you got mud everywhere. What am I supposed to do now?"
"I don't know." He grinned. "Take a hot shower?"
"Oh . . ." She paused for a moment. There was nobody else in the house for a change. "Race you!" And with that, she ran down the hall, stripping as she went. Ikey followed on her heels, shedding clothes almost as fast as she was.
Several hours later, they lay in front of the fireplace in their bedroom, sipping hot mead from mugs. Outside the wind howled and drove the rain against the windows.
"I have enough distilled vinegar to make a gallon or two. After that I'll have to hit one of the stores in town. Last time I was there I think I saw some stuff that should be pretty close. I'm not sure how concentrated it will be though."
"Well, honey." He rolled on his side to face her. "I guess we'll just have to play it by ear. We just have to get it in large batches and mix it to taste. I don't think people will care if it ain't exact. Close enough will work. And we will have to start aging more peppers if you plan on making more than a few gallons."
"That's a good thing. I have tons of them growing. I was expecting to sell a lot more of them, but I just couldn't get that many people here to eat them. We could probably get several bushels of them by the end of summer, and still have enough for seeds for next year. I could also make a batch with the habaneros and ornamental peppers."
"What? Why? I thought that chemical weapons had been banned from production."
Daphne calmly transferred her mug from one hand to the other and then proceeded to slap the back of his head. "Wuss. I'm sure we can find people who'd want it."
"Aside from the Inquisition, you mean?"
She didn't even bother to dignify that comment. "You know how it is. I like venison and pork as much as anybody, but the spices here leave a lot to be desired. And when some of these people get their hands on them, well, you remember the dinner party at the Metzgers' place?"
Ikey shuddered. How could he forget? One of their first business dinners outside of Grantville had been at the house of an affluent brewer in Badenburg. Just about everything served that night had been liberally doused in ground black pepper or nutmeg. Even the wine had pepper in it. They found out later that it was a way of displaying how wealthy the Metzgers were. Black pepper was expensive. So was nutmeg. Both of them had to be imported from Asia. Having lots of both to put in everything meant that you had cash to burn. It also meant one of the worst meals either of the Pridmores had ever been to.
"Okay, granted. We'll see if anybody wants it. I'll see if I can dig up some little bottles and labels. I think there are some glass blowers who set up around here recently. They might be interested in a small contract." He sipped some mead from his mug. "And one of the brewers will probably have the corks. Maybe I'll go ask Herr Metzger."
"Don't you want to wait and see how it tastes?"
"Nah, I gave up trying to second guess you and Evie about business stuff years ago. I got sick of eating my words again and again. Besides, I smelled the mash when I was opening it up to check on it. It was good enough to make me drool."
"How could you tell? You drool all over yourself all of the time. . . ." Daphne quickly rolled out of the way of a playful swat aimed at some of her more well-padded regions. The first one missed. The second one didn't. Things went down hill from there, resulting in several more hours of playful recreation.
A month and a half later the first batch was finished. The Germans sat around the breakfast table and watched in fascinated horror as Ikey and Daphne splashed the fiery red concoction all over their scrambled eggs.
"Ohhh . . ." Ikey moaned. "God, I missed that."
"Mmmm." Daphne rolled her eyes. "Even if we don't sell a single bottle, it was worth it."
"I don't think I want to sell any of this stuff. I don't want to run out again. And this took years to age."
"We have gallons of it, honey. We won't run out anytime soon. We also don't have to age it that long. The only reason we did this time was because we forgot about it. We can start picking more peppers today. It's not fair to keep this all to ourselves. Let's rack some of it into the bottles and put it on the shelves down at the market."
"All right. But only because I already have the bottles and labels. If we run out though, you are getting a major I-told-you-so."
The local market agreed to carry the sauce. Since the Pridmores already had a contract for supplying honey and mead, it was no trouble to add another item to their display area. The debate as to whether or not it would sell was put to rest by the end of the first day. All fifty bottles were gone in just over an hour. People were calling the farm to find out when more would be ready. The next morning Ikey brought the rest of the bottles in and he barely made it through the front door of the store. The biggest buyer was one of the managers from the Thuringen Gardens. He bought forty bottles. And had he not brought two of his larger bouncers with him, it would have been unlikely that he could have gotten out of the store with all of them. Another big buyer was a woman in TacRail coveralls who was accompanied by a trio of men who made the bouncers look like friendly puppies. She said it was a surprise for a friend of theirs. They bought almost twenty bottles, and left the store with significantly fewer dirty looks than the Gardens' manager.
When Ikey went to settle accounts with Jim Garrett, the grocery store manager, he was surprised. His percentage worked out to nearly twice what he had expected. When he asked about it, Jim merely shrugged his shoulders and said, "I upped the price after yesterday. You said it would take you a few months to make another batch. After the comments I heard at the Gardens last night, I knew people would be willing to pay more for it." He grinned at Ikey. "It also didn't hurt when I mentioned that it would be awhile before you could make more to my wife. Rather loudly. In the restaurant."
"You doubled the price?!" Ikey blurted, aghast.
"Nah. But I did give you a bit more of a cut than we normally do. All of those extra people in the store waiting for you to get here bought a ton more stuff today. It was the biggest Wednesday sales we've had in a long time. Just keep me in mind the next time a batch is ready. If you can give me a few days of lead time, we'll have them lined up around the store by opening time in the morning."
"It's that hot of an item?"
"How many things do we have that remind us of home like that? Sure it's good stuff. But in case you didn't notice, nearly all of the people that bought it today were like you and me. Up-timers. Or they were getting it for up-timer friends. It reminds us of what we left behind. Where we came from. Something that nobody else on this continent would even think of making. It is something that is uniquely ours. By the time your next batch is ready, you'll have plenty of German customers, I'm sure. Especially now that they have it at the Gardens. But for now, it's for us."
"I knew Daphne and I missed it. I just didn't think of it that way. I figured we might get a few of the diehard fire eaters and chili fanatics. And maybe a few others." Ikey paused. "I guess it's just a taste of home."