It was late April, but the land was still black from the autumn fires. [...] The only thing left for miles around was his family house, isolated now on a little island of unburned ground. [...] The blackened earth of central Kansas was barren and sterile as the moon. [...]
For a month now he and Maddy had been living on cornmeal mush. Every three days Aiden would take a few patties of dried cow dung out of the shrinking pile in the shed and build a tiny fire. They would huddle by the stove, enjoying the rare warmth, waiting for the water to boil, then pour a cup of cornmeal into the pot. When it was cooked, they would each eat two spoonfuls while it was warm, then pour the rest into a pan. It set when it cooled, and they would cut it into squares to eat for the next two days. [...]
He had thought a lot about other solutions, but there didn't seem to be any. The army wouldn't take him until he was eighteen. He would have lied about his age—he was almost sixteen, and he knew that after four years of war, the army wasn't picky these days—but there was still the problem of what to do with Maddy. There were no relatives to send her to, not even a sympathetic neighbor. There were no neighbors at all now. [...] There were other small towns, but no guarantee that anyone would be left there either, except a few desperate survivors like themselves. It was over a hundred miles to the nearest railhead in Independence, Missouri, and traveling was dangerous enough for a lone man. There were outlaws all over the state, and deserters from the war. There were leftover bushwhackers, proslavery guerilla bands who had ridden the countryside terrorizing the population. There were Indians, wolves, tornados, blizzards and lightning, an endless list of danger.